Read the introduction by guest editor Matt Bell.
A whale, a tree, a vine
That time you were little and from the back of the car said Where are me because you didn’t understand yet it was where am I and what did it matter, anyway?
I could see you in the rearview and you’d put on my sunglasses that dwarfed your face in tint and frame and I answered your query with In outer space and you said, for whatever reason, In memoriam, before you even knew the word.
The radio began playing a music neither of us had ever heard before, its strange orchestration somehow apocalyptic, or maybe that was my ears’ frequency since you’d been born: apocalyptic. Sitting in traffic I’m sure we both thought of you: you however you saw yourself at that baby of an age and whatever it was you planned to do next, and me of your gorgeous face, the luminosity of your skin and how taught the skin of your body and the huge size of your head and all the thoughts I’d never know, all the ways you were mine, all the pieces of you that could be only me, and by the time we moved forward again I wondered had my face melted, how wet and hot it was with tears.
Outside at a certain point you learn quickly to wield a bat. For your age you’re not terrible but in the grand scheme of things you aren’t great.
One morning you carefully build a tower to place the ball upon and then you hit the ball and this breaks the tower easily, scattering its bits across the ground. The scene looks like someone in a very small car had built a very small bomb and this smallness had all been detonated and in its explosion had magnified.
Throughout the same day are the times when while clutching the bat you also clutch at your breast so that as your audience I think of the opera, which I’d never attended, but I had an idea of what it might look like and you definitely were it.
In the yard you began singing a song at full speed. All the birds scattered from the grass to resettle in the trees to judge you. Your voice was still learning its place and wavered in your throat and collided with the air. Then it was evening and we hadn’t eaten all day and you said it was okay, you weren’t hungry, but please could you have some water, or please some milk, please, and I got you a little of both and also bread with no crust that you gobbled, choking, your eyes turning wide without oxygen, glimmering and reddening, and then I punched you between the shoulders and you coughed and were well again, as well as you could be, and I breathed again too.
That time I told you I made you all on my own and you said that was impossible and I said nothing’s impossible and you said that was impossible too and I said knock it off and you said that was impossible and I said that isn’t funny and you said that was impossible and I said go to your room and you said that was impossible and I said I’d throw you in there myself and you refined your attack to impossible, impossible, impossible, until what you were saying sounded only like gibberish and I yelled I can’t understand you! and you changed none of your tune, you only spoke louder, and my head felt like a balloon and your words were my helium and everything was tenuous, everything on the verge, and I kept looking down, checking for ground, and there I stood, grounded still, until the once when your voice sounded way far away. I glanced and you were already a dot beneath me, a poppy’s seed, a speck, and then what I heard of you was more like an idea and your voice wasn’t yours anymore and I couldn’t picture you well.
I never said aloud I didn’t want you but there was a long time that I didn’t want you and when you came out you weren’t what I’d expected so I cried in the operating room and when they placed you on my chest still I cried and not for joy but a bone-aching sorrow. What drugs they’d used to numb me left my chest like it might collapse and having you placed there felt only like you were trying to kill me, as did the fact that they’d cut me open to fetch you, as did all the ways they’d shaken me to loose you from your wedge inside.
Of course at some point I had to love you. It took time after you were born and I spent a lot of days wondering if it would ever even happen, planning for the possibility that it might not and what then, for you but also for me, if I had to bear your life with no love to provide you. Would I have the chops to pretend? Would I figure out some form of substitution? But then it finally happened over nothing, over you finding me when you could’ve found anyone in a crowd at the park but I was your destination and I knew your sound as if it came from me, a calling for me from me, and then there weren’t any take-backs. I was yours as you were mine through and through.
Once, you burned in the sun badly, and even after you’d been pulled from it and brought inside, still – your skin fevered and this turned to awful, watery blisters, and your eyes wouldn’t open so maimed they’d been by the light. Maybe it wasn’t this bad but it was bad all the same, it was terrible to have happened.
The young neighbor we both liked must’ve heard me howling, was I howling? Was I making any noise or was I emanating some kind of a current that overtook our shared hallways and brought him to us as if he were lost and I a kind of a sea?
The neighbor let himself through the front door and saw where you were and me beside you and he helped me into your bed and continued what I’d begun with the cloth, the salad bowl filled to the brim with water, all the ice I’d hammered to chips, and I reached a point of delusion when I believed he was you and a boy I’d never know and who knew where I was, I was nowhere.
The young neighbor came by again and again, long after you’d healed. He was young in that he was younger than me, I didn’t even have to ask, I just knew it by the look of him, by what paunch he wore that was like leftover high school pudge rather than the gut of someone who’d been drinking too long. I’m saying he wasn’t some juvenile, that he was old enough to decide to come find us.
When he did he brought just himself first, and sat on our sofa or in a corner of our kitchen, used two of the burners on our stove – a big and a little one – one of our cast iron pans and our best medium-sized pot, anything he could find in the cupboards or pantry or deep freeze, anything that still looked viable in the crisper, etc.
It’d been over a year of him visiting when he arrived one afternoon with a bag that he’d packed. He removed a grater from it, a peeler, a set of measuring spoons. I didn’t say that we had these. I liked that this was his variation on moving in. He did not move in. At the beginning of it all he’d had a key, in case of emergencies, and this was what he continued to use to be with us each time that he was, and so everything had a fleeting air to it but at some point our emergency would stop, it would have to.
For the young neighbor I shopped more thoughtfully, I tried to shop like the older woman I was, whatever that might mean, I had no idea then or now either, and I did my best to keep the counters free, the trash emptied, and later the bathroom drains cleared of my hair or yours or, even later, your sister’s. To keep the sheets laundered and the rooms aired but especially the sheets laundered, before his visit and after.
Everything felt secretive, only there was no one to keep a secret from. All of us had an inkling of our goings on and we never did a thing outside our apartment. We didn’t rendezvous in a park, or take a picnic to the river, or hike through the forest to be watched by all the eyes we couldn’t see. And then there were times he let himself in without us being there too, and in his wake were casseroles, meringues, once, near the end, with a perfect timing, baked Alaska. This you and your sister were delighted by, and even I gasped when I saw it, and we knew it was him.
In the bedroom he and I blotted up space for each other. We didn’t discuss any parameters, we just started being there and then, for a while, we didn’t stop.
I was larger than him and took up more room. There were mornings I saw him in the new light and thought in his petite-ness he was you, that nothing had happened or would happen in this bed but a boy finding his mother to get rid of a dream that had scared him, but also somehow you’d aged and I’d lost track of all the time between the you I remembered and this new and older, leaner, hairier you, a you whose neck was appled as the neck of a man and not a boy. Then his eyes might open and I’d be so relieved. That they weren’t yours, they were nowhere near pretty enough, and so you were my baby still, this man nothing who you’d be.
Your sister wasn’t planned, but then you weren’t planned either. With her though I had no fucking idea, I swore it then and I’ll swear it now and all the way to my grave I’ll swear it. Her arrival was a surprise in its truest, purest form.
I didn’t get sick. I didn’t crave foods. I bled and then I didn’t bleed but this wasn’t unusual, it was life. Yes I felt tired but you made me tired and I blamed you for this, as I blamed you for my weeping, my nerves, my chair in the dark where I’d obsess over you being stolen, beaten, taken and cut into tiny screaming pieces, every terrible thing possible. At the time, when you spoke you only yelled, and you never walked if you could run and you could almost always run so I was often running too.
I was fat before you but once you arrived you burned my fat down to muscle so I was a tree, something to build with and shelter with and burn with. My body was an optical illusion and when a person looked they saw who I’d become, which is to say thicker since you were born, hardier, as if I could take anything hurled at me and deflect it. I couldn’t. See above: my chair and my obsessions in the dark. And then your sister, coming on like diarrhea.
I went to the hospital when I couldn’t weather the cramping anymore, me having sent for the young neighbor and you returning with your hand in his hand, his face full of hair since the last that we’d seen him, or had I not been keeping track, reddish as the hair on his head wasn’t and coming in gray in spots too, which I’d think of many times after and which I’d put under a soft thumb once or twice in our lives, his eyes when he arrived with you as quiet as ever and if he meant to show kindness it looked just like pity.
Please, I said to him, I don’t understand, I said, and he said, Can you walk? and I told him I could but just barely so in the end I was carried. I couldn’t believe he could do it! If I was a tree then he was a ribbon. But there he went, schlepping me like it was I who was ribbon and he with a trunk, and you followed, a sucker, holding to his back pocket, and then we were seated in his car, not ours, and he was speeding through streets, running through reds, disregarding stop signs and by the time we arrived to the hospital I’d become a strange, strange person you’d never encountered.
They took me away and began to run tests and they pronounced me in labor and I said You’re fucking joking. They weren’t but one of them laughed, then caught her face, then apologized. Your sister came quickly and you were led in to see her by the neighbor.
I don’t know, I said, and I stopped and you were looking at me and I was looking at him and he was looking sheepish, like it was he who’d done something absurd but it was me, obviously, and it wouldn’t be undone. Your sister wasn’t his, I knew it like knowing not the smell of the earth but of the worms when at last there’s been rain, and I told him so.
When you ask who your dad is I say you have his coloring and you say What’s that supposed to mean? That you don’t have mine, I say, and you roll your eyes and leave me.
You have a friend I dislike who you spend so much time with. When I ask if you like her you say Yeah, I like her, and when I ask if you’re fucking you say Ma and you don’t flinch. You’re not old enough to be fucking but what is old enough to be fucking anymore? Now, instead of thinking about all the ways you might be wronged I think about all the wrong things you might do and whether or not I’ll get you out of them and how you’ll carry on.
When your sister was born I still had friends to talk to about this but they’ve dried up, moved away, changed districts and phone numbers and married or divorced or found a new scene. I try to talk to the mirror but then it’s just more of my face talking back.
This friend of yours tells you secrets and once in a while you tell these secrets to me, watching me watch you tell me, watching me react or not react. I do everything I can to keep a straight face always. I only ask back how you feel. My voice remains level and my hands are exposed so I don’t let them writhe when they’d rather and they aren’t allowed fists. What even are the secrets? That she’s seeing some other boy, that she’s in love with a different girl, that the boy and the girl and your friend decided to do it all together, to just jump in a bed or wherever and see who’s stuff ended up mingling with whoever else’s stuff, too. I can’t believe that you’re telling me and I disbelieve all of it but I don’t say that to you. I ask what can I do, is there anything I can do, do you want to talk more about it, are you hurt or upset or jealous or afraid or whatever other feeling you might have that I can’t even fathom, so beyond me are you in the ways of your heart.
I ask (because who would I be if I didn’t) if you’ve been invited to mingle your privates with theirs too, and I totally say privates and you say Ma and cut me a look that if it were something else I was asking about, something with a higher potential for embarrassment, what I don’t know but something, then you’d’ve blushed, too. But here and now to my asking about your commitment to this crowd and, essentially, this friend, you say only Ma, and cut this look, and if anything it looks tired.
How much do you sleep at night and do you start when you shut your door or do you spend too much other time doing whatever else it is you two do, calling each other and texting each other and whatever, seriously whatever. At some point you’ll begin running through the night to her, you’ll tell me so and I’ll ask that you not and you’ll do it anyway, in another expression of yourself as no one near me. But that’s later and this is now.
We’re in the kitchen and you’re sitting at the table and I’m leaned on the counter to drink water like I’m thirsty. The hair’s in your eyes how I always loved when you were young, when I could hold you to sleep still, when you’d dissolve in my arms. I push hair that isn’t there out of my eyes for something to do. Your sister’s practice is over and I’m late to go get her. When I say I have to go you ask can you come and I tell you of course. I’d love it, I say, and I wait for you to do something else with your eyes, something to show me what new line I’ve crossed, but you don’t. You get up and walk ahead to the car and you get in the front with me, for once I’m not your chauffeur and not because I made you sit up there either, and I’m not imagining it, I am not imagining it: you slump my direction. I’ll take whatever I get.
You’ve got your dad’s coloring, which is to say you haven’t got mine, which is to say you’re safer in the sun than I am, if anyone’s safe in the sun at all these days. You’ve got his hair too, curly and full of itself on your head, and when I see you I see him and I feel ready to love the way I was ready when we made you, when we acted like nothing could touch us but us touching us, like nothing could come of our touching but more touching until we didn’t want anymore. And then you were made. And then you were born. And then it was your dad leaving how we’d never expected, bad symptoms becoming bad results, dire ones, and horrible expenses, and terrible, ruthless deterioration. Everything was so brittle and delirious at the end, and the end came so fast, sweeping up the quick days and few weeks marked by bedsores and by eyes that no longer tracked together but moved freely of each other as neither of their pair had done before. We cared for him, you and me, you on me like a barnacle, me a whale for you. I’ll feel forever winded by the facts of it all, incapable of enough breath to say anymore than I ever have to you, which is mostly all of this, us at his side until your dad was nothing but a piece of the sheets, a grayed layer, an element of the bed that belonged mostly to the bed and not to the living, our tragedy and our truth.
Your sister grows up into an asshole, which you seem surprised by, but who isn’t an asshole sometimes? At least her assholery’s honest.
At one point, when you’re too old to, you two start a fight. You’re out in the kitchen and I’m watching it all and you say you won’t hit her, she has her hands up and everything, is dancing on her toes. I’m not gonna hit you, you say again, and she says Then I’ll just hit you, and she does, a good hit, a strong one, and it blacks out your eye and does stuff to your cheek, and I say What the hell is this? and she says you deserved it and you say nothing in your defense so I don’t know who’s telling the truth. I came in late and you’d already started yelling and threatening things, and so there’s only what she’s done and that she’s your sister, too, and I have to keep loving you both.
Later, about her growing up to be her, you tell me you can’t reconcile the fact she’s a jerk now and I say to quit trying. You can’t make a person something she isn’t, I say, and you tell me you know, and I say Well. I want to say to you that you act like you don’t know, or like you think you’re not some jerk too, but I shut up my mouth how I’ve done since that friend of yours, the one I hated and for good reason because she was a liar, turns out.
There’s no magic that’ll shrink me into some monkey perched on your shoulder the rest of your life, whispering all your upcoming moves and thoughts and actions, all your interpretations and feelings, before you ever make them. What a cruel idea. So long as you’re not being killed or trying to kill someone, not smoking your brains out with crack or doing whatever else terrible thing there might be to do, then it’s your journey to be on, to fail or succeed at, and so on and so forth. But it’s damn hard to keep quiet because I built all your parts and so to speak feels like my place. It feels like my entire fucking table, wherever you are and wherever I could try to protect you.
Mostly I just watch you, the way your face has finally lost its baby fat so your skin clings to your bones like a peach to its pit. You’ve gone and tattooed yourself all over your arms, flowers and animals and sea creatures and so much incredible color – those are the kind of arms I’d’ve fallen for at your age. And all this when you’re still young, doing nothing I believe can support you, not yet, so I don’t know where you get all the money to embellish yourself but I trust that it comes from something honest because I trust. It’s what I’ve chosen to do these days, is trust. I’ve been asked out for dates by guys who think they can care, I really believe that. Their faces are earnest. But I don’t care, and this is what I trust. I don’t care at all about them. Just for you and for that asshole sister of yours. I care the whole fucking world for the two of you.
Your sister looks nothing like you. In a line-up you’d be mistaken for strangers or lovers before anyone named you her brother.
When I first notice she’s awful I try to fix it by loving her more, and when that doesn’t work I try loving her less. As if either tactic might succeed and rather than her being a total shitbag she’ll be just sixty-percent shitbag and gain forty-percent kindness. That’s forty-percent more kindness than zero.
I feel like I should’ve seen it coming, even just based on the way she ate as a baby, how she hit each tit with the impetus I’d seen in fish on pro-fishing shows, not that I watched these but I’d seen them, flipping through, and recognized in her a similar lift and rearing back of the head, a parting of the mouth, a strike on the lure as if my nipple might escape in the manner of flies. Once she’d latched on she’d shake her head à la some predator shaking to death its prey.
Later, when she was older, she wanted to ride horses in ways I couldn’t afford. Her father could afford them, and he did. He wasn’t a bad man. He was really pretty alright. Even you said you thought he was nice, and that you thought he was good, and a few of the times when your sister went to stay with him you went along, too.
We all lived in the same city and your sister learned horses on its outskirts, at a stable that didn’t look like much but what did I know. I knew your sister before her father reappeared, and when he did I sat him down like an interview and asked him questions and made him work for it, made him work for the chance to know the girl I loved.
A few years past your sister’s birth, soon after the baked Alaska, the young neighbor finally found a girlfriend and we were all a little sad when that happened because he was never over then and we never found another baked Alaska on our countertop, waiting and amazing and crisp still and warm, perfect.
We’d see him and her across the street and he’d come as far as our sidewalk, the edge of our yard nearest the front door, but never past that. The blueberries he’d helped plant were just out of his reach and when we picked them you asked could you bring him some, please, and I said of course you could but I don’t think you ever did. You forgot, or got distracted, or you spent more time eating than picking and by the end there were hardly any left for anyone else.
Your sister: freckled how you aren’t freckled, straight-haired how you’re distractingly curly, paler than you, taller than you, faster than you, richer than you. You’re both so much older now and you come home for a holiday and she isn’t home yet, can’t arrive until the day itself and even then – the weather might fuck her, she says, and I say I hope it doesn’t and she says I can’t control the weather, Ma, and I say Just stay safe.
I sound like I’m asking her to be careful who she sleeps with, which I’ve never said. I’ve said Pay attention, for certain things, and Watch your step, and Are you sure? But I’ve rarely said Be careful, and I’ve never said anything about those she chooses to fuck. Like I haven’t said anything like that to you, either.
You get to the house a day ahead of schedule, because the weather actually held. You drive your crappy little car that would kill you if a semi looked at it wrong, it’s such a shit heap, but you refuse to spend money on anything else. And it’s not like you’re poor, not anymore. You grew up, got a job I’ve done my own research about so I can understand it, what it means to do it, talk to you about it, but you never want to talk about work. You want to talk about me or the climate or certain things you do in your spare time, that you can afford to do in your spare time you make so much money now, stuff that takes water and other stuff that takes rope and all of it takes muscle, which you have in abundance. You don’t say anything about anyone you might be seeing seriously, or even just for fun, for nothing but whatever you might do between your two bodies, and wherever you might do that.
If you’ve proven just one thing, you and your sister too, it’s that you’re each your own messes, and nothing like the mess that was me. And so your sister is richer than you but you’re still doing well. You have no trouble taking care of yourself and you send me money each month, too. The first time you send a note that says Please don’t rip this up. Please put it in the bank if you don’t want it anywhere else. If it makes you feel better, you wrote, say somewhere that it’s to be left to me when you die. But then don’t die, okay? Not for a while at least, so I can build up a good nest egg, alright? It makes me cry and laugh at the same time, which I can’t remember having done any other time in my life, and you never ask if I got it and I never say that I did. It’s enough for me to do what you’ve directed, exactly.
I don’t want to move but something about the city expanding a road that’ll be better for everyone except the people whose lives it blows up means I have to.
This dump is in the way of progress, I tell you and you tell your sister and your sister tells her friend who’s some hotshot lawyer where they live and this woman says she’ll do what she can. She calls me before your sister does and tells me what your sister’s said and I say she shouldn’t bother. You have more important things to take care of I’m sure, I say, and she says that’s not the point, says the point is I’m you-know-who’s mother, and that’s important enough for her.
Of course I’m interested then, and I agree to her doing the work. I can’t pay you, I tell her. At least not your going rate, I say, and she asks if I know what her going rate is. I have no idea, I say, and she tells me it’s insane. This is a favor, she tells me, and I say I can still bake a good pie, cream or fruit, her choice. She laughs and it sounds authentically exhausted and I imagine all kinds of faces, all the ways I’ve seen a person be tired. And of course I’ll thank you, I say, and I say Thank you, and she says Don’t worry about it. It’s not a favor to you, she says, so we know it’s a favor to your sister, but she doesn’t sound malicious. She actually sounds really nice, as much as you can tell a person from her voice, and I keep imagining what she might look like, and when I finally look her up on the internet she’s nothing like I’d pictured. Shorter than your sister, and even prettier, and sometimes her hair is straight and sometimes it’s wavy. She looks fit, and elastic, like she could punch faces or scale sheer walls, which I tell you and you say Come on, Ma. What’s that even mean? you ask, and I say at least she’s trying to do something, and you ask if I’ve thanked your sister yet and I say she hasn’t called.
Have you tried her, you ask, and I say I’ve been busy. I’m supposed to be outta here by the first of next month, I say, which is true. And everyone’s shit has to get gone through, I say. You know how much shit that is? I ask and you say gallons, which isn’t an answer I’d pictured. Right, I say. Gallons of oceans of shit, I say, and you say you get it, enough already, and I ask if you’ll help me and you ask Seriously? I’m a hundred percent serious, I say, and you say you’ll get back to me and then before you do you’re walking through the front door.
You run into a man in the kitchen and you say What’s this? The man’s wearing only his underwear, and these aren’t glamorous, and the man says I’ve heard so much about you, and you say, sounding unflappable, All of it good. Not even, says the man, and then I’m in there, finally, looking like I feel, I’m sure, which is like a kid again, caught. And it feels fucking great. I wish we did this all the time.
You’re a good son but no saint. You come to help me pack but you spend a lot of time on your phone and you say that it’s work. Your job title has Experience in it, as in other people’s, and unsurprisingly there’s always someone upset about something because their experience left something to be desired or complained about or sometimes somebody just needs an ear besides their own to hear them talk. I get it.
Once, I catch you on the old phone that’s hooked at the wall, the one you and your sister learned your numbers on. It’s still rotary, which you two always make fun of, but it’s what I like and when I see you using it I get on the other one hooked into the wall in my bedroom because I’m supposed to be showering anyway, and I muffle the mouthpiece because I want to know who you’re calling. I’m not proud of it, but I won’t walk around feeling guilty, either. And imagine my surprise when I hear your sister on the line. She says Hello and you say Hey and she says Hey kid even though you’re older than her. Ma’s screwing some guy, you tell her, and she says Like a boyfriend? and you tell her how you found out, you mention the underwear and the fact they were sagging, had lost all skills to hug a body. They weren’t sexy at all, you say.
It takes a lot for me to not say to the both of you he’s not my boyfriend. If anything he’s my exercise. He’s my training package. So what if I like to exercise, so sue me.
I wish you were here, you say, and in those words you sound young as she’s treating you. You’d hate me, she says, and you say I already hate you. But I still want to see you, you say, and she says We saw each other last month, and you say I know. It was nice. And she says Well, don’t get used to it. And I can’t be there, alright? she says. It just doesn’t work in my life right now, she says, and you say It never will, and your sister says Probably not. At least not for a while, and you say How’s stuff with whatshername, and it’s the name of the woman who called me on the phone, the hotshot lawyer, and your sister says It’s stuff. How’s stuff with whatshername for you? she says and you say I don’t have a whatshername and your sister says Well maybe you should get one. Find someone else to call and bother, she says, and you tell her she’s a real bitch sometimes and she tells you it doesn’t keep you from calling. Not yet, you say, and she says Threats don’t work on me, and you say Not yet.
Of course I’m surprised by the both of you and I think how I’ll have to keep my face together, I’ll have to stick with it and act like I’m dumb still, about the fact of your love lives, or whatever lives it is you indulge in, and I mean the fact that you’re in contact, too.
Maybe if you’d had my dad you’d be nicer, you tell her, and you sound even younger than you did before. You sound like some schmuck on the playground, some little boy who doesn’t have a clue how to hurt a person. We’ll never know, your sister says, and for all the things she could’ve said, for all the ways she could’ve creamed you, she sounds kind this time. And then she says Love you brother, and you say Great.
I’m a vine now, and this is for myself. I don’t know what I was for your sister. Not enough, is what I keep thinking. Or maybe I was already a vine then, with her, and as much as I thought I was leaving her be I was actually climbing up her and choking her, acting like the world’s worst kind of ivy that nobody wants. Was that it? Did I imagine me one way and act in another?
As a vine you say I’m too thin, do I ever eat you ask me, am I doing drugs. It’s the end of the week of you visiting, and the house isn’t much more packed than it was before you’d arrived. In addition to all your time on the phone I kept saying we should go here, go there, and so we visited the state’s biggest rose garden and got lost amongst its rows and all its cloying sweetnesses. You were drunk on it all, stuffing your nose into flower after flower after flower, pulling out some notebook like I’d never seen you use and writing certain names down in your tiniest script, all angles and slants, swooping your face back for countless re-sniffs. Who were you then?
We went into the city, too, and ate dim sum three days in a row, us languishing in the sweaty seats for hours at a time, reviving whenever the carts passed us by and we asked for our dishes of pork buns, all the shrimp things, dumplings and tripe and chickens’ feet, Chinese broccoli drowned in savory sauce, and so much more, and for so long our tummies hurt.
And we went to the zoo, which you didn’t want to do but I insisted. We didn’t go enough when you were a kid, I say, and you say We never went, and I say That’s my point. I grab us maps at the entry and we hike around, finding the giraffes, and you make us stop and watch the poorly attended bird show, someone up on stage in a huge leather glove parading around some colorful number, and then someone else in a huge leather glove launching an eagle or whatever it is up into the air where it circles, then dives, then returns to the glove, and you whisper to me Run!
We watch the penguins from inside a cave structure, pressing our noses to the glass while they slide by and twirl in the water and one pokes its beak at me so it’s like we’d be kissing if there was nothing between us, which I say and you ask why it wouldn’t be ripping my mouth off and I say that’s a horrible thing to say and you shrug and say Reality can be horrible. We stay a touch longer to admire how deeply and swiftly they dive for food tossed from their handlers.
Out in the sun again the elephants throw dirt on their backs. The polar bears lounge in an expanse of cement. The baboons throw shit at us standing outside their bars, watching. This is depressing, you say, and I say It’s awful. We leave. We come home. You say again that you want to get packing and I say again it can wait until tomorrow but who knows what I’ll ask you to do tomorrow, who knows how I’ll try to monopolize you in our time.
You can call that guy to come over, you tell me, and I say It’s my goddamn house. Of course I can call that guy to come over.
You’re at the table in a worn-out shirt and your boxers and I can’t help imagining you as if I were someone in love with you in the way of love that isn’t ours. In the way of love like your father’s and mine. It’s not that I want you but I can picture someone wanting you and it does a thing to my chest I’m unprepared for and all of a sudden my eyes are unstoppable. I see none of the baby you once were. There’s none of that animal left in your skin, except for maybe your voice sometimes and the words that you choose. It’s been years since I’ve been afraid of someone hurting you, and I think less of your dying, which is to say that I hardly think at all of your dying, and I don’t waste my time anymore with all my what-ifs – what if you’re stolen murdered raped trampled strangled sold anything everywhere always forever. I’m sure all the weight of that fear helped me get to this vine-hood but these days I’d rather focus on my exercise, my training program, my goddamn quote unquote fitness. I deserve that.
Your sister never stopped showing horses but she started paying for them herself and they weren’t cheap.
One year she flies me out to the world championships in the middle of the country. Of all the places to have a fancy horse show, I say, and she says It’s a total dump of a state, I know.
You’re there too, but you flew out your own self, and her father and his wife are there also but none of the other half-siblings. It doesn’t mean anything, I know, but I feel like our bloodline has won, yours and mine and hers, and I catch my reflection smiling about it throughout the week. My teeth were never fixed like the two of yours and so everything is crooked and I can’t mistake me and my delight for anyone else.
Her lawyer friend couldn’t win that case and I ended up having to move and I did a horrible pack job and it’s been over a decade and I’m still unpacking. Bit by bit I undo the boxes, five minutes a day, ten if I’ve hit a groove. I find stuff I don’t ever recall having had, and I give most of it away. At some point we’ll figure out that a lot of it’s yours, your sister’s, but that’s what leaving things behind will do. Make them matter most when they’re no longer there, when the most you can do anymore is remember them.
Whatshername called me when she found out she couldn’t win the case and she apologized and I said Shut up. Don’t be an idiot. Thank you, I said. I asked what pie I could bake her and she said You don’t have to do that. If I had to do it I wouldn’t, I said, and she snorted and said she’d always liked rhubarb. Not too sweet, though, she said, and I said Good girl. I made it. I sent it to her. I packed it in marshmallows and paid to overnight it. I never heard from her again.
Your sister’s horse is impressive, I guess. I know nothing of horses, but he’s very attractive, I can tell. Chestnut, I’m informed, and blonde. The stalls are draped off but since we’re there with your sister we’re allowed back without question and there he stands, eating, or he takes his time at his bucket for grain or for water, or he spreads his legs to dangle his trunk of a penis and piss a stinking pool in the sawdust beneath him. Once we catch him laying down and then your sister gets in with him and curls against him as if he’s a huge dog. Is that safe? you ask and she says it doesn’t matter. When has that stopped you, I say, and she closes her eyes, relaxed.
She rides western and has all the gear for it, all the silver on the saddle and bridle, all the clothing that fits her like a second skin, the cowboy hat, the cowboy boots, the gloves. There’s a girl who looks like a teenager who’s there to help with the grooming and she’s thin as a knife. She spends a half-hour just snapping her gum and picking the animal’s tail out with her shoe-polish-stained fingers until what’s there is an amazing, glistening work of art that follows the horse for two feet.
When they enter the ring I lose my breath watching, your sister looking finally at home, finally like she’s a place she belongs. She doesn’t win, not the championship she’d wanted. She comes in third and that means there’s no picture taken posing with the ribbon and roses and plaque at the far end of the arena, and no victory pass, either. She looks happier, though, than I ever remember her looking. Her face looks like no face I’ve ever seen on her. Genuine, open, radiant. You were robbed, I tell her when she’s out of the saddle and I can grab her close. She smells like powder and armpit and leather and I fill her narrow back with the span of my hand and I press her to me and she doesn’t arch away. She pulls closer and all I can do is inhale, inhale, inhale some more. I was totally fucking robbed, she whispers back, but when she draws away she’s grinning, and she gives me a gentle kiss.
I’m not especially old when you die, and when I’m told I feel gratuitously young. You don’t die stylishly and you’re horrible to identify. I meet your sister who’s reached you before me and who feels like the adult between us: she stands up straight for us, and walks carefully for us, and nods for us to tell them we’re ready to see you. We aren’t really, but neither of us folds at your sight. What’s so horrible is you look just like you should only your color is strange in the overhead lights, and probably from the time that elapsed before you were found, and now from the cold. Everything begets everything.
You were discovered on your couch and they determine you died in your sleep – natural causes having to do with your heart and some undiagnosed weakness.
Our hearts have always been good, I tell the examiner who speaks to us, and she makes a face that’s supposed to mean empathy, I know. That much I can translate.
These things are awful, she says, and your sister says Has this happened to you? and the woman shakes her head no and doesn’t try to tell us she understands. She just says I’m sorry, and your sister says Fuck. I tell her thank you and I hold out my hand and suddenly all I can see is you but the you of your childhood, the you you were when your sister was born and we were severed from each other how we hadn’t foreseen. For this we both mourned.
In the morgue I make a throaty noise, something better suited for a predator that actually predates. Your sister grabs me. Ma, she says, and she says with a beautiful tenderness: Shhh.
We go to your house where I haven’t been able to visit. You’ve always come to me because I hate airplanes and I don’t like to drive too long, either. Your garden! I never imagined. When did you ever? Of all the things you mentioned you never mentioned this and we didn’t trade pictures. But it’s gorgeous and abundant, almost annoying how luxuriously colorful it is, full of plants I can’t name as anything but their hue – the pink ones, those orange things, all that blue and the well-placed yellow, the crimson and violet and fuchsia and puce. In back you’ve got tomatoes and these are all fat and red and ruining their plants, pinching them over. Your sister says that she hates you and walks to the beds and begins picking the fruits. She picks a small mountain, glaring, then picks another, then another, and I squat down to join her, their fuzzy perfume pocketing us, and for how long does it go unnoticed that she weeps?
Your sister tells me to find a group for my sadness. It’s pretty good, she says, and I say Because you have one? and she says Yeah, I do. Because you’re sad? I ask and she says Fuck you, Ma, and hangs up.
Your dying’s made us closer, I swear. She calls, I call, we talk or sometimes just sit and say nothing. She can easily hear the train when it whistles downtown where I live now, and I can hear the sound of life at breakneck speed all around her.
At your reception we filled bowls with your tomatoes and asked people to take them, to go in the garden and pick what remained and to pick all the peppers, too. I didn’t know anyone but your sister hugged a few people and when she wiped at her eyes they reached out to touch her.
I thought I might suffocate everyone, how huge my chest felt, how unwieldy. I felt again like a whale but with a strangely placed happiness, or was it strange I felt a kind of a happiness? To see how loved you’d been and were still. In that moment my whale was the type who’s swallowed someone whole and, once inside, that person finds it hollow, completely livable, and sure it’s lonely but it’s also furnished with a sweet little corner complete with a lamp and a cozy chair, maybe an ironic fishbowl, a bookcase filled with whatever books said swallowed person wants, a tidy little bed that remakes itself and other surprises that show up at just the right moments.
Do you get it? I’m keeping you inside me for as long as I can and I don’t know that I’ll ever get over that I can’t get in my own self to sit with you, hold you, listen to you – most of all I just want to listen to you. But then most of all I want to everything with you. Everything we did and all we would’ve done. I watch you at the sink in there. I can’t make out your face.