UA-19541526-1

A House Above

by Erin Francisco

Mrs. Naomi Peck’s hands tugged in short jerks along the leather coating of the steering wheel as she turned onto loose gravel at the end of the Wright family’s driveway. She would have to become accustomed to calling it Miss Wright’s property, as Adelaide Wright was now the only remaining family member of that name. Mrs. Peck had been sent by the Mayall Ladies Guild with a fruit basket and a sympathy card offering condolences for the loss of Adelaide’s brother, who had passed on only a week ago.

Adelaide Wright was a quiet woman who had spent her entire life on the rundown farm now left to her. A first-generation Mayall citizen, Miss Wright never assimilated as well into community life as her brother had. Mrs. Peck remembered the brother, Jefferson Wright, in his younger days: the sharpness of his face, the way he sauntered around the valley hills.

The driveway was a straight and narrow incline that broke from the road at the ninety-degree turn and ascended upward against a mountainous wallpapering of pine trees. The Wright farm was nestled above and behind a forested cape that surrounded the steep driveway. There stood a large oak barn, an unpainted, graying farmhouse, and a partially collapsed yurt sinking into the ground a few hundred feet from the house.

Getting out of the car, Mrs. Peck surveyed the barren yard: no annuals adorning the latticework on the porch, no flowerbeds or gardens or frog ponds of any kind. The yard was sloping and uneven, much like the enormous hill that the farm perched upon. The place looked horribly masculine to Mrs. Peck. It was like the home of an old man that had never had any womanly presence to speak of.

Carrying the fruit basket to the door, Mrs. Peck noticed the wood flooring and support beams of the porch, albeit gray and ugly, were still thick and sturdy, and did not creak once as she walked to the door.

Adelaide Wright answered the door with a look of near-geriatric detachment in her large, soft eyes. She said nothing at first, just stared blankly out into the yard. Mrs. Peck found it odd to ask, “May I come in?” after introducing herself to Miss Wright and explaining the nature of her visit. When told the fruit basket was from the Ladies Guild, Adelaide said only, “How nice.” She led Mrs. Peck into the kitchen and seated her at a card table with matching steel chairs. Mrs. Peck reminded herself not to take Adelaide’s despondency as a personal affront; after all, the woman had just lost her last remaining family tie.

“How are you getting along, Miss Wright? Is anything giving you trouble up here?”

“No, I’m getting along fine,” Adelaide replied.

Adelaide moved methodically around the kitchen, gazing absently through a high window facing the back of the house. From her seat at the table, Mrs. Peck could not see out of the raised window. She imagined a backyard as dull as the one out in front. Adelaide offered a cup of tea to Mrs. Peck, who politely declined as she watched the distracted older woman with diminishing interest.

Mrs. Peck fumbled with her purse, searching feverishly for the sympathy card so that she could quickly leave her telephone number in a gesture of neighborly hospitality, reiterate her condolences, and excuse herself. She was beginning to feel uncomfortable at the unrelenting silence of the grieving Adelaide. Although a good-natured person, Mrs. Peck was unskilled in mannerisms that expressed anything other than conventional congeniality. She was a woman who took pride in her own goodness, but in order to affirm that goodness, she needed candidates to receive her charitable goodwill. Adelaide Wright was a perfect candidate, but her reaction to the visit and fruit basket crushed Mrs. Peck with disappointment. After several moments of searching through the purse, Mrs. Peck could not produce the card.

“I must have left it at home,” she apologized; Adelaide looked entirely unconcerned.

That night, Mrs. Peck hovered about her kitchen table as she sorted attendance lists and receipts from an open briefcase she kept exclusively for the Mayall Ladies Guild. Her husband came in through the side door and began to wash dirt from his hands.

“Finished planting that clematis; take a look and see if it’s what you wanted,” he said.

“I think I’ll be going back up to the Wright place again tomorrow.”

“Hm? Oh, the Ladies Guild. You know, I remember those two as kids. Their dad was a special one himself. I guess apples don’t fall too far from the tree.”

“It’s not just that, I think she needs to get out more now that he’s gone. It isn’t healthy for an old lady to be alone like that.”

“She’s not that much older than we are, Naomi. I remember seeing her brother stalking around the high school wing when I was little; always had that wild hair.”

“Joining the Ladies Guild would be good for her. She doesn’t seem to garden, doesn’t seem to do much, really. No animals, no children. What do you think, Adam?”

“You can let any screwy old biddy into the Ladies Guild if you want.”

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Adelaide Wright was four years old when she saw her father butcher chickens for the first time. It was November and already the snow had swallowed up everything; only the pine trees retained a subtle presence on earth, the dark underside of their bows breaking up the coverlet of whiteness. She stood looking out from the side door of the farmhouse at the sliver of yellow light escaping from a slight opening in the barn door. Her father had left minutes before with a pail full of hot water and a rag. As Adelaide struggled to pull on her heavy boots, he told her to stay inside and went out without another word. He was a man of little explanation, and even as young as four, Adelaide understood not to ask him why she could not follow him out. ‘Why’ did her no good. She stood looking out at the crevice of light, her boots on and coat hanging open. The yard was black as pitch: only the light from the barn sliced through the darkness, illuminating a glittering crust of snow. Adelaide crept across the yard to the barn and hugged her body to the door as she peered inside.

In the center aisle, her father gripped a small length of rope that had been tied around a chicken’s feet. The bird had gone limp—hanging upside down, it’s wings spread wide and motionless. Her father swung the bird down onto the flat end of a large stump before his feet with a hatchet wedged into the wood at the edge. In movements swift and unflawed, he clapped one hand over the chicken’s head, covering the eyes and beak with his palm and with the other hand took up the hatchet and brought it down in one firm hack, careful to avoid his hand. Not a moment after the sound of the hatchet echoed like the first crack of thunder through the barn did the bird begin to flap wildly and scratch it’s bound feet at the side of the stump. Her father removed his hand from the head and the body slumped away and crashed, rear-end first, onto the concrete floor. The headless bird attempted to run senselessly around the stump, but the rope around its feet continued to bring it to the ground in a bloody heap. Hatchet still in hand, Adelaide’s father reached for the rope while the chicken lay squabbling on the ground. As he pulled up the rope and the bird began to rise away from the ground, one of the feet slipped loose from the knot and the bird jerked about, dangling by one foot. Blood shook from its neck and splattered over piled straw in the gutters along the aisle and sprayed in thick, uneven lines all over her father’s bare forearms and the front of his already bloodstained shirt. Her father dropped the hatchet and grabbed for the freed foot, pinching the talons together with his fingers and looping them back through the slipknot in the rope. He laid the bird parallel to his thigh and tightened the knots until the rope made little crackling noises against the chicken’s wrinkled ankles. The bird again went limp as it hung upside down, apparently the head did not matter in this position, and he stooped to pick up his hatchet. After hanging the bird by the rope onto the end of a long a nail protruding from a support beam, he walked over to the bucket and with a small brown rag cleaned the blood from the blade.

Adelaide stood outside, unmoving as the fallen snow, and watched as her father cut another length of rope from a large spool sitting on a stack of hay bales. He made two slipknots at either end and stuffed one end of the rope into his back pocket. As he opened the wire door to the chicken coop, an arm wrapped itself around Adelaide’s stomach and a hand clapped over her mouth. Adelaide felt herself pulled away from the door and whirled around. She was met by Jefferson’s narrowed brow and eyes; “You’re not supposed to be outside,” he said and took his hand away from her mouth. They walked clumsily through the snow, his stomach pushed into her back to keep her limp feet from swinging back and knocking him in the shins as he carried her.

Adelaide was not upset over the chickens, perhaps because children do not think of death as a thing with much prolonged significance.

Adelaide and Jefferson Wright were enrolled at the Mayall public school when they were five years old, respectively. Jefferson, being a year older, attended first. Unaccustomed to life beyond the farm, Jefferson was slow to adapt to an atmosphere of other children as well as being kept inside a classroom. Until the public school, Jefferson and Adelaide had grown up almost entirely without other children. Their father had constructed the yurt years ago when he first came to Mayall as a farmhand. He and the children lived in the yurt after he purchased the property and set to work repairing the old farmhouse. Above the valley, the two children had only each other. They played in the woods and fields during the day, and slept side by side at night for warmth inside the Yurt. They relied almost solely upon one another, which pleased their father and allowed him to continue his work in peace about the farm.

Jefferson’s quiet approach to school made him appear slow. The boy would wander aimlessly through the classroom and the schoolyard, watching everything move around him as if he was absent from the world he observed. He was made to repeat a second year of kindergarten with the hope that another year would make him more assertive.

Jefferson’s second year of kindergarten was Adelaide’s first. Although the two of them remained codependent and shy, Jefferson attempted to make acquaintances with other children in the class. Adelaide, however, stayed removed from the other children, and accordingly, they too avoided her.

The Wright siblings were easily recognizable among the children in Mayall. They often dressed unsuitably for the seasons, wearing too many layers of clothing in the warmer months, and too few clothes in the colder. Jefferson’s hair grew long and metallic in its darkness, and Adelaide’s became wily and fuzzy as a bird nest. Her hair matted itself into dreadlocks by the end of the second grade, and at times smell strongly of dried sweat and lanolin. The Wright children’s shabby appearance was due in great part to their father’s neglectful and poor understanding of how to raise his children.

When an older boy took it upon himself to embarrass Adelaide in the schoolyard, dragging her around by her tangled knots of hair, saying she smelled of pig shit, Jefferson flew into a rage and swung mercilessly at the boy’s face. Adelaide was knocked free of the boy’s grip, only see she her tormentor turn on Jefferson and throw him to the ground, kicking at his sides. Adelaide leapt onto the boy’s back, digging her fingernails into the boy’s throat and kicking him in the privates with her heels before a teacher rushed in to break up the fight. The Wright children became increasingly aware of the divide between themselves and their classmates, and treated this disparity in the way their father would have. They carried with them a heavy silence, which only intensified their rough appearance and their dependency upon one another.

One afternoon, Adelaide and Jefferson walked home along the long driveway to the farmhouse. As they went, they would stop to point out sightings of a woodpecker or a red squirrel surprised by their footsteps. It was early fall. As the pine trees held fast to their deep shades of green, the maples and chestnuts began to turn with warm colors seeping through their leaves like amber blood. The entire forest glowed with soft light and the smell was damp and sweet. Jefferson took his sister’s hand as they climbed the hill together.

“This is what you do when you’re in love,” said Jefferson.

Adelaide smiled.

“Are you and me in love?” she asked.

“I’m pretty sure, Addie.” He smiled back at her.

The children reached the Yurt and dumped their school bags on the ground, signifying to their father that they had returned from school. The two walked behind the house, and went far into the woods where they had gone to play many times before. They pushed piles of thick, damp leaves together, leaves that had fallen to the earth prematurely and were already beginning to release the sweet and heavy fragrance of rot. They dove into the piles and buried each other underneath them, pulling at each other as they played. As the sun began to set, Adelaide pulled her brother underneath her, touching him all over as he lay still upon the crumpled leaves. They would do this for years to come, exchanging touches, exploring where their bodies lay, understanding that they themselves existed within the world.

As they began their years of high school, Adelaide maintained her distance from other school children. Jefferson, however, began to desire connections beyond the small world he knew. As the luck of nature would have it, Jefferson grew into a lovely young man: tall, with a dark complexion, a strong, well-defined face, and hair long and gleaming.

Mayall remained very much the same as the children grew into their adolescence; the valley remained a wide empty bowl of land, isolated from neighboring townships and far from the center of any large city. Although the Wrights’ earth-soaked appearances were becoming more familiar to those who lived outside of Mayall, they were still atypical of the children in the valley. Some of the Mayall girls took an interest in Jefferson’s quiet personality and handsome features. He began going to sporting matches and town concerts by the creek. Adelaide remained ratty in appearance, her hair falling in thick, fuzzy waves down her back. She was a small girl with a round face, set with dark eyes and a sharp brow, the sharpness of which made people assume, upon looking at her, that she was a vessel of silent rage. But this was not true. Adelaide simply could not understand the people of Mayall. She did not know how to investigate or enter into the lives of other people and so kept her distance. She avoided anything beyond the boarders of her father’s property and maintained that her brother would remain the only person she could ever understand or need.

One night as Adelaide lay restlessly awake, a harsh wind blew over the mountains, rattling the windows of the house. She began counting the seconds between rattles, as if they were the sound of thunder, as if she could estimate a coming bolt of lightning by measuring the distance between the bursts of wind. She rose and walked to the window and gazed out to see a small light emanating from the still standing Yurt beside the house. She crept through the hallway leading to the backdoor. The walls were bright with moonlight, and as she crept, the light seemed to increase, illuminating the skin ofher bare feet to a kind of glow. She imagined herself a ghost walking through the night, searching for something she had known in life and could not keep in death. She wrapped a large sweater around herself and left through the backdoor toward the Yurt.

There in the light of a large kerosene lamp placed in the center of the dirt floor, Jefferson lay on his side, paging through a Sears catalog. He had a writing tablet beside him and every so often he would pause and jot something down upon it, then return his attention to the magazine. Adelaide stood just beside the doorframe, watching her brother’s movements for a moment before she went to him. She walked around behind him and lay down, paralleling her body to his. Without a word, he looked over his shoulder at her and cast a faint smile that Adelaide was certain he gave to no one but her. No matter the day, nor the current tempest of the world, Adelaide could always find this smile in her brother. She looked down to his feet and saw that he was wearing a pair of black leather boots. She stared at them for a long time until Jefferson again looked over his shoulder at her. “There is a lady in Oneonta who will sell you shirts and pants and things for a song. I think I’d like a suit,” he said. Adelaide inched closer to him to look over his shoulder and down onto the paper he had marked up. They had often sheltered each other in this way as children, aligning their bodies together in bed, or nestled in the long wet grasses in early summer. Adelaide reached an arm over her brother and pulled him still closer to her as she gazed at the paper that lay before him. On it he had taken words from descriptions in the catalog and written them in a sequence with words of his own that formed a kind of poem about dead trees and Woody Guthrie. She looked at him as his attentions returned to flipping the pages of the catalog. She watched him take down words and turn pages for a long time until she asked, “Why a suit?”

He stopped perusing the catalog and dragged himself up to sit. He looked at the ground between his knees and then over at the lamp burning in the center of the deserted Yurt. “Well, I got asked to go to this dance at school. And I think I’d like to go.” Adelaide was silent for a while, and she too shifted her gaze from Jefferson’s lamp lit face to the lamp itself, shining like a golden medallion from the center of the room. She began to nuzzle the back of his head with her face, and slid her arm down to his waist, grasping his warm hip with her palm. He lightly brushed her hand away saying, “I’m not cold tonight, Addie.”

Adelaide grew to believe that outside her father’s farm, the world was occupied by people who needed definitive things, people who were constantly let down by the lack of answers to their questions. Something was always wrong, something always at fault. Adelaide knew that she and her brother were a part of their imperfect world; the Wrights were the part of Mayall that did not mirror lives within the valley and thus they were ignored. To have known who and what the Wrights were was to have broken away from the reality pursued by the village and to have ventured into something that was at great odds with the atmosphere of the standing community.

The evening of the dance, Jefferson wore a plain brown suit that he had bought second hand in Oneonta for his Sears catalog poem. Before he left, he had tucked a white mouse ear flower into the buttonhole of his lapel. Jefferson rode away from the farm in the back of a Country Squire station wagon. Another boy from the high school sat behind the wheel in a tuxedo and taxied the full car of boys and girls overstuffed with their nice clothes down the long driveway.

Adelaide sat at the kitchen table, brooding over Jefferson’s absence, while her father cut carrots that fell with a plunk into a pot of water on the stove. As the last carrot chunk plopped into the water, he laid down his knife and stood looking at Adelaide for a minute. She looked up at him, her stomach tightening in what must have been a grip of fear, for he had never laid his eyes directly upon her before that she could remember. Then he turned away and stood at the backdoor for a moment. “I’d like for you to take the truck and go get your brother later.”

She knew that her father would be asleep by the time the dance was over, which was why he had asked, but still, his request was surprising to her. She assumed her father felt indifferent as to where his children went or whether they came home. But nevertheless she was glad to have been given the job of retrieving her brother. Jefferson, after all, was hers. He was the only person whose company she wanted, and she felt herself to be the only person he could need. Adelaide grew excited with thoughts of driving down into the valley that night and retrieving her brother from among the people that did not love and understand him as she did.

At 11 o’clock, Adelaide parked near the side doors of the high school building. The sound of music interrupted by applause echoed through the open doors. She sat behind the wheel of the pickup for a few minutes before she killed the engine and got out. She leaned against the tailgate and folded her arms tightly across her chest; although it was May, the nights were still cool, and a soft breeze swept over her as she waited.

Laughter and a few whoops resounded from the front yard of the school. Around the corner of the building jogged a small group of teenagers along with her brother. Jefferson was smiling, his teeth glimmering in the light of the street lamps in the parking lot. As the group passed by the truck, Adelaide stood up and in a near whisper called her brother’s name. He glanced over his shoulder and looked surprised to see her. He turned to the girl on his arm, speaking to her in a low voice and pushing her on with the others. He jogged over to his sister, a coy smile still on his lips.

“Hey, what are you doing here?” he asked in a calm, distant voice. He sounded as though he was making an effort to be friendly and it left a sourness in Adelaide’s ear.

“I’m here to bring you home,” she said.

He looked back to the others still making their way over to the station wagon.

“You know, I think I want to stay out” he said, “We’re having a really good time. I’ll find a ride home, okay Addie?”

He was breathless as he talked, like the words made him too happy to speak. Still looking after his crowd, he placed a hot hand on his sister’s arm, “I’ll see you later.”

Adelaide stood, watching her brother bound toward the station wagon. He’d treated her like a small speck of light that had caught his attention and then dissipated. He climbed into the backseat of the car while his date grabbed at his hair playfully. Adelaide watched as they passed a joint around. Small strings of curling smoke drifted out of an open window, rising up and up until they vanished. She watched her brother’s silhouette become dimmer and dimmer behind a thickening screen of smoke. The breeze picked up again and Adelaide shivered. She got back into the truck and drove home.

Adelaide and Jefferson Wright graduated from high school that spring along with thirty other students. Adelaide was glad to be finished with the school in Mayall, as she could now devote all of her time to the farm, building up the land, hoping for a surplus at the end of the growing season. Jefferson enlisted in the army along with many other boys from the village. By this time, US forces had been on the ground in Vietnam for almost four years.

The day Jefferson left for training, Adelaide was leaning against the refrigerator, looking at her brother with slanted eyes. He had been dating the girl he had taken to the dance a few months before, and had seen little of his sister or the farm since then. Adelaide was angry, an anger that arose out of abandonment, but she could never force that anger out onto Jefferson. She could never reproach or reject the one who had always held her complete love.

“Addie,” he said her name pleadingly, “Would you do this one last thing for me before I go?”

He smiled and pulled out a kitchen chair. He reached into his pocket, drew out a pair of scissors and sat down. He held the scissors out to her like a peace offering. She grabbed them and walked behind his chair. Taking up the top layer, she looked at the dark, glossy hair, spilling like a waterfall of oil from her fist. She moved her face closer to the hair and inhaled deeply; the smell of hay and clean water trickled through her senses. He sat perfectly still and did not turn around. She held the scissors to the hair and cut slowly, the shortened strands falling into a sleek pattern against his scalp. She worked her way around Jefferson’s head, never stepping in front of him, lifting and snipping away the long smooth layers of hair. Tears crept down her round cheeks. When finished, she laid the scissors on the table and left the room. She sat at the bottom of the stairs, weeping.

Outside a jeep was honking in short blasts and revving the engine after each honk. Adelaide looked up to see the silhouette of her brother in the doorway. He looked down at her for a minute, his short hair unaffected by the breeze blowing through the open door. He looked older and more muscular: unlike Adelaide, unlike their father. Outside, a girl in a sundress waved from the passenger seat as the Jeep honked again.

Adelaide stood to look at her brother and was met with a dark face she had never seen before; his mouth was inverted and his cheeks sagged and crinkled at the sides. She had never seen him cry before. As she felt her own eyes burn with tears, he turned on his heels and let the screen door slam behind him.

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The Wright farm glowed in a warm haze in the fall for the next several years, like pears braised with wine. In the spring the air was crisp, the brooks flowed dark with mud and melting snow. In the summer, the fields swayed with young wheat. As time moves on, we see the world differently, with eyes that grow immune to the fine edges of our being, that curve the things so new and unfamiliar into softer objects; things easier to look upon and recognize as our own. The winters at the Wright farm became milder, as winters often do. The earth continued to run in cycles; nature’s moments of harshness and mercy became predictable.

It was late in February when Jefferson Wright walked up the unpaved driveway towards the farm. The snow was thin, a mere a crust of thawing ice, and it broke with small crunching sounds as it compacted under his feet.

His sister had written him every month since his departure, and after four years, he was returning home to her. Shortly after Jefferson had been deployed, his father had begun to wander at random, muttering to himself as he trod aimlessly from end to end of the fields and the road below the house. It was just before the winter that Samuel wandered out at night and was found by neighbors in the morning, drowned in a pond surrounded by large cattails just beginning to dry out and snap off. He had bullied a pathway through the cattails and fallen into the water. Unable to pull himself out of the thick, cold mud, he froze during the night. Jefferson knew of his father’s death, as he had been informed through a letter from Adelaide. He thought of her spending the long winter alone in an empty farmhouse.

It was in letter telling of his father’s death that Jefferson also divined a feeling of inexplicable warmth. He sat in the low light of a Vietnamese sundown, reading his sister’s words over and over again. He felt the warmth press itself into his back, curl around his stomach, pass over his chest. He remembered the feeling of Adelaide’s fingers in his hair as she cut each handful away from his head. He smelled her breath, warm and damp with crying, as though the paper itself spoke the words from her mouth. “I don’t believe in god,” she wrote, “but I am praying for you.”

As Jefferson walked up the drive, he imagined the letters he had received from the girl he had taken to the dance. The first dozen were hopeful and lush with worry and concern; those that followed were more infrequent and shimmered less. Toward the end of his second tour, when only a third of his platoon remained, he received his last letter from this Mayall sweetheart. He read it only once before he threw it into the flames of a burning stilt house.

Reaching the farmhouse at the end of the drive, Jefferson left his pack on the porch and walked straight through the hallway toward the light that shown from the kitchen. At the table sat Adelaide, nursing a large porcelain mug full of tea. She stood as his dark frame entered through the doorway. They stared at each other a long time, her eyes sharp and focused, his wide and long. His face was transformed by a down turned mouth that swallowed his face, long cheeks, and skin that crinkled near his temples. He laid a hand to the wall as he withered to the floor. As Adelaide dropped to him, he draped his arms heavily around her shoulders. He cried into her chest, soaking the neckline of her sweater. She could feel the sweat of his eyebrows on her bare collarbones and they pressed into her with each heaving sob.

Jefferson looked up to Adelaide, tears still snaking paths down his face. He gasped for air, suckling the snot back into his nose, his throat warbling, unable to finish his thought. He muttered indecipherable things, shaking and whining like a hurt animal. She pulled his body close to hers, cradling him in her lap like a child. She bent her face to his mouth and kissed him.

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Mrs. Peck adjusted the sleeves of her jacket as she stepped out of her car and navigated her way to the porch steps of Adelaide Wright’s house. She noticed a grouping of wildflowers growing near the corner of the porch: Black-Eyed Susan, Yellow Sweet Clover, Wild Angelica, and Mouse Ear all sprouting up and swaying in the breeze. She smiled at the sight, thinking to herself that nature does indeed take back what people neglect and turns it right. She was still smiling when Miss Wright answered the door wearing an old tunic and muslin skirt so long that it dragged across the unvarnished floor like a drapery. Adelaide greeted Mrs. Peck with a faint smile and asked her in for tea.

In the kitchen Adelaide poured tea into a teacup set before Mrs. Peck at the card table. She set the teapot aside and sat across from her visitor.

“I am so sorry I forgot this the other day, I don’t know where my head was when I left home! But this is for you, Miss Wright, from the Ladies’ Guild.” said Mrs. Peck.

She extended a card across the table. Adelaide took the envelope and laid it calmly beside her own teacup.

“You know,” she began, “the Ladies Guild is always welcoming new members interested in joining. We meet every Thursday at seven-thirty at the Methodist church hall. We always have a wonderful time together!”

Adelaide’s eyes wandered around the kitchen, towards the high window facing the backyard. “Thank you,” was all she said, her voice wavering and sounding a little farther away. She rose, taking the card and holding it against her collarbone as she sauntered over to the window, looking out.

“It’s very beautiful this time of year,” Adelaide wistfully spoke.

“Why yes,” Mrs. Peck agreed immediately, “Nature comes to triumph, doesn’t it?”

Adelaide made no reply. She watched a robin bob down to the earth and pull a long worm from the grass and fly away. Mrs. Peck, discomforted by the silence, stood and forced herself with much courage to go stand beside Adelaide. She laid a gloved hand upon the Adelaide’s shoulder and followed her glance out of the high window.

Behind the house lay a vast expanse of forest stretching up along a hill so tall it seemed to touch the sky. At the edge of the woods lay a large garden sprawling over the earth. Blooming wildflowers, vegetables, vines, and massive leaves twisted around one another, intermingling between trellises. The plants grew in free abundance, creating an Eden, the illusion of perfect nature, as though the garden had sprung up of its own accord upon abandoned land. The breadth of foliage was so great that it consumed the entire backyard, the plants blending into a live and wild sprawl. Chickens stalked about the garden, jabbing their beaks under heavy leaves, pulling up skinny garter snakes and beetles. At the edge of the woods, three crows lay nesting on the ground, silently watching as the chickens moved through the plants, devouring all they found.

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Erin Francisco welcomes your comments on “A House Above” at efrancisco09[at]elmira.edu.

photo by Rolands.Lakis

Living in the Eighties

by Joseph Tynan

“Eighties – I’m living in the eighties. I push – push, push, struggle…” – Killing Joke, Eighties

Growing up I learned to see my father for what he truly was: a man stuck in the 80s. He was the darkest white man you have ever seen. His skin was roasted from excessive exposure to a combination of baby oil and tanning beds; his nose whistled constantly when he breathed. He had holes in his septum from doing too many lines of toot. Work and uppers, work and uppers. Until there was no more work, only uppers. Then he crashed, burned, and my mother left him.

My father never regained his former glory. He was never able to escape the depth of loneliness into which he sunk. After twelve years of sleeping in the same room with him, side by side in double beds, some of this rubbed off on me.

Until I changed rooms, I lived a traumatized life. I would go to sleep, and if I tossed throughout the night, it would keep my father awake, and he would yell at me. I never forgot the feeling of the intense struggle to remain still for hours at a time, sweat building on my brow and soaking through the sheets.

Over the years I developed a horrible case of insomnia.  During my stay at my stepfather’s, I had the room closest to the front door. The windows were barred, covered by an eerie green plastic shade that created dancing silhouettes in my room. I tried to sleep, staring at those shadows, wondering if they were people attempting to break into the house. My fear turned into a mania and without discussing my concerns with anyone, I spent two years frightened of that window. I imagined a robber barging in with a knife. In my mind, I saw him stabbing me in the stomach. I conditioned myself to sleep on my stomach, to spare myself a potential injury. To this day, I’m unable to sleep any other way.

I used to lie about my earliest memory. I claimed I remembered what emerging from the womb was like, arriving in the hands of the obstetrician. To this day, I’m not quite sure why I fibbed. Perhaps I felt it empowered me. Perhaps it was to shield myself from my baby pictures, the source of my real first memories, which were more traumatic and occasionally sparked feelings of shame. In one, I see myself sitting on the lap of Mr. T. My mother is sitting right next to him. On a bed. In a hotel room. In Hawaii. Apparently, he was a “really good friend.”

Later on in life, when he had the cancer on his ear, Mr. T lived at my aunt’s house. I was still young, unsure of how much time had passed, but it seemed like he spent at least a year there. My aunt worked on editing his book—yes, Mr. T has a book!—and he worked out daily. Eventually, he managed to overcome his illness, and later in life I discovered Mr. T had left behind an ounce of his finest marijuana. Despite its age, it smoked well. I always kept a single nugget from that ounce, as a souvenir of that man’s struggle against fate; an early inspiration for my own struggles, the way I’ve clung to the greatness surrounding me in order to escape my father’s life of mediocrity.

When I was young, I had constant play dates with a kid named Guy. His mother, June, brought Guy over to play at my house, and I would play at theirs. Eventually we even went to school together. Something was off about Guy. Every inquiry we made of one another was met with a single word answer. I was too young to decode everything. Eventually, Guy faded from my life and it was only later that I found out that while we were friends, he was being sold to Michael Jackson, spending his weekends at Neverland Ranch. Perhaps I could have been the lucky child to ride the Jackson roller coaster. Alas, fate decided otherwise and I was spared from eating Michael’s cotton candy.

As I grew older, living in Beverly Hills and Malibu promised to provide numerous encounters with celebrities. For a period of a year and a half, I worked at Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf. It was actually a pretty good job other than the fact that I was teased with chocolate croissants every day. I suppose it was a small price to pay for a chance encounter with Arnold Schwarzenegger. He came in with his family one day, surrounded by the secret service. Some of them stood outside patrolling the entrances while Arnold ordered his macchiato.

A year earlier, he had been elected Governator. The state cheered, having a celebrity as its poster boy. Some people, including my aunt, protested his election. At the time, she was working with Arianna Huffington, trying to provide for the wellbeing of the environment. Mr. Schwarzenegger, in his gas consuming Hummer, sparked a rebellion from the liberal community, inspiring the infamous Hybrid vs. Hummer Debate of 2004, of which my aunt led the opposition. Twelve women from the community came out, revealing that Arnold had groped them. The GropenFürer. Such a man was surely unfit for government. My aunt was one of the twelve.

Sensing that my chance for revenge had finally arrived, I was prepared to make the worst macchiato of my life, using completely unfrothed milk—soy milk instead of low fat—half a shot of espresso instead of two, and crushed up bits of chocolate covered coffee beans. However, my plans were foiled and my chance to get back at the Terminator swiftly slipped away. Instead, the most skilled barista was assigned the task of making his drink. I was told to stay in the back room, and I did, silently weeping. I could have used a time machine that day.

My father’s stories about his early life still disturb my mind: Story after story deludes my concentration and, cumulatively, they created an antipathy toward him and his prolific sex life. Time spent with him was littered with numerous accounts of his gallivanting, exaggerated by his haunted stares at nearly every woman we passed on the street. It was if he was entranced, focusing his entire attention toward them, no matter what the situation. Questions asked while his attention was diverted were never answered; they were lost amidst the constantly refreshing world of his imagination. I liked to think my father just really loved women but very quickly, I realized he really just loved women naked.

He used to tell me, “The first thing I think about when I see a woman is what her vagina is going to look like, and nine times out of ten, I’m right.” Such tendencies brought my father close to numerous car accidents, his head and torso turned a full 360 degrees, in pursuit of a final glance at some hidden vagina.

I wish I could say my father’s treatment of women was my biggest fear, yet it was really my father’s impatience and anger. Perhaps I’m exaggerating for the purpose of storytelling, but if it wasn’t for the fact that my father was such a large and intimidating man, some of our past experiences may not have worked out so well.

I never honk my horn. Never. If someone does something ridiculous ahead of me, I just stop my car and swear at them softly. I’m not sure this is a very good survival mechanism. However, growing up with my father, I’ve already experienced many lifetimes of honking. If a car didn’t immediately start to move, once a light turned green, my father honked. If a person cut my father off, my father honked. Obviously, if someone was driving too slowly, if my father couldn’t zip around them, honking ensued. If some ill-fated septuagenarian found herself crossing the street before my father, then I sure hope she’s missing her hearing aids, because an entire symphony of honking will happen, usually accompanied by a flick of his middle finger.

Coupled with excessively fast acceleration, honking at every possible interval, added on top of the dangerous scenario of women, from a six to a ten, made riding with my father something of a deadly game. On one occasion, we had just finished some take-out Chinese. The garlic shrimp was gone, the orange peel beef container lay strewn on the floor, and a hefty carton of sweet and sour chicken sat in the console between us. Apparently, a guy in a new Mercedes cut my father off, twice, and was taunting him with his middle finger. My father began screaming at the man, “Pull over! Pull over!” He was going to fight him on the side of the road. When my father enters an angry trance, even the tear struck voice of a little boy is not enough to deter him.

As the man pulled up to the side of the car, my father cradled the container of sweet and sour chicken in his hand. The man rolled down his window, probably preparing some snide remark; however we will never know his intentions, as in an instant, my father flung the container of Chinese through the window, directly into the face of his jester. Like most memories, all I retain are a few snapshots. This occurrence could be depicted with one image: the man in the new Mercedes with its leather interior, now had his face covered in sweet and sour sauce. His eyes, shielded by a pair of glasses, had thankfully been spared. Once he realized what had happened, something came soaring through the driver’s window, ricocheting off my window and falling into my lap. Apparently, the man had been brushing his teeth. I cringed in disgust as I tossed aside his wet toothbrush.

Despite my father’s faults, at one time, back in the 80s, he was a handsome man. This was a time when only looks and money mattered. And he had both. He once told me about a house party in Beverly Hills. They had sugar bowls filled with cocaine. People would do lines in public, and no one even batted an eye. It was at one of these parties where he was introduced to Sir Elton John, even though he hadn’t yet been knighted. They hit it off and Elton asked my father to come home with him. Despite his appearance and soft voice, my father is no homosexual. Though, I’m quite sure he couldn’t help but feel flattered by the offer.

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Joseph Tynan welcomes your comments on “Living in the Eighties” at jtynan[at]cca.edu.

photo by Kalleboo

Shopping for Bras with My Mother

by Rachael Volk

We had come as part of a mother-daughter shopping day, which Jake had begged off, telling us he was tired. We knew my boyfriend was really staying behind to have a “private conversation between men” with my father. It had been the worst open secret starting when he’d suggested we go spend a weekend visiting my parents. I was a little surprised he was actually serious about it. I could see him trying to surprise me on bended knee, but asking my father’s permission was, well, a little old-fashioned. Jake never seemed like that kind of guy, but I guess he was suddenly worried about offending my father. Though I’m pretty sure if he gets around to popping the question, my father will just laugh and wonder why the hell he was asking him instead of going directly to the source. Still, I had to admit it was a little nice to pretend ignorance on Jake’s behalf. It was like he was planning a surprise party I already knew about. I even had moments where I could make-believe for just a minute that I didn’t know his secret, where I could pretend my parents, specifically my mother, had asked us to visit instead.

My current bra was being held together by a couple safety pins and I had been wearing it since my freshman year of high school. We hadn’t planned to go to Victoria’s Secret, but my mother had heard of a new store opening, so we decided to swing by. The store wasn’t large; it was in a modest brownstone building with large windows to display mannequins in different bras, with a convenient backdrop to hide the interior. When we entered a saleswoman came over right away to greet us, asking if we needed help finding anything.

“We’re looking for some new bras,” my mother said. I nodded in agreement, optimistic it would be a quick in-and-out. There was a reason I had put off buying bras. Sometimes I wondered if I should have been born in the ‘60s, when bra burning was all the rage. Then I could just let them float around freely, jiggling with every small movement. Except I didn’t like the unwanted stares and boob sweat that came with being bra free. For a time I had avoided buying any new bras altogether citing price. It was beyond puzzling why people spent so much money on them; we were going to pay more than the price of a t-shirt for less fabric and something most people wouldn’t see. My only hope was that our shopping excursion would be mercifully painless.

“Do you know what your sizes are?” The saleswoman asked, her fingers thumbed the end of the fashion ruler draped over her shoulders. She was a petite woman, dressed in a light blue blouse and black pants, with cropped blonde hair.

“I’m a 34B,” my mother said.

“36D,” I chimed in, “I think.”

“When was the last time you were sized?”

My mother and I exchanged glances. I knew we were both thinking the same thing: We’re supposed to be sized for bras? “Maybe a few years ago?” I answered.

“Well, it only takes a few minutes, so we’ll just check things out, okay? Now, how about I set up a fitting room?” She was already walking to a collection of large white booths with thick doors on the left side of the store, covered in different posters of women trying to look either powerful or sultry while wearing just a bra. We followed her lead automatically. “Is there any particular style you two are looking for?”

“Not really. Just something fun for everyday wear,” my mother said, eyeing the different colors and patterns along the walls. The brands displayed on each white wall and rack section beneath names printed on large placards hanging from the ceiling, names like Chanel, Le Mystère, Calvin Klein and Freya. The bras were separated by colors and patterns, then style, then size for a sort of efficiency that allowed other saleswomen to pluck them with confidence before going to the changing booths. It made my eyes hurt a little to look at the neon-colored bras; against the white walls, they seemed so much brighter. The only thing breaking up all that monotony were more posters of women standing or lounging in bras and underwear.

All of these different options I found a little worrisome and my concern was confirmed by hearing my mother add, “Any some fun patterns?” She pointed at one bra on the wall, a light blue with clouds. “That one looks cute.”

Our perky saleslady unlocked one of the stalls. “After I check your size I can see about getting you one. Most of our bras come with matching panties, too. Who wants to go first?” I immediately pointed at my mother. She didn’t make any complaints and they went into the stall. I sat down in one of the green, plush chairs, making myself comfortable for the camp out. Only a minute or two had passed before I heard my mother exclaim in sheer disbelief, “I’m a what?”

I sat up straight at those words. Ever since I had been a freshman in high school, after I started wearing the 36D I got from Victoria’s Secret, it had been a running joke that my mother would need a boob job to catch up to me. I had gone from small tender buds to warm and burgeoning flesh practically over night.

I got up and walked over just as the saleswoman left—Marcy, her white nametag read in red flowing cursive. She promised to bring my mother a few selections. I knocked on the closed door and asked, “What’s going on in there?”

My mother’s disembodied voice carried through, “I’m a 32DD!” I could feel my eyes wanting to pop out of their sockets at her size. At first I thought she was trying not to cry, but then she added, “Your father is going to have a minor aneurysm if he sees the receipt after we’re done.” I realized if she was crying, they were tears of joy.

“Are you sure she’s right?” I asked. “I mean. Aren’t D’s supposed to be…huge?” I couldn’t help but look down at my chest, wondering how my mother could have secretly been carrying around cannons like that the entire time.

“That’s what I said,” I could hear her pacing back and forth in the stall. “She thinks that’ll be my average size. Average.” She stopped pacing to laugh, “Actually, maybe your father won’t care when he sees the receipt.”

My reaction was that of a twelve year old. “Ugh! You do not need to give my imagination anything to latch onto, Mom! Gross!” I recoiled, feeling my face pinch together, trying to banish unwanted images from my head. The price of an overactive imagination. Thankfully, before I had any more unwanted images of my parents, Marcy had returned with two hands full of bras on hangers. She knocked and disappeared into my mother’s stall. I returned to my seat, hearing occasional snippets of their conversation. They were talking about Jake, how he was off asking for my hand, as Marcy got my mother to try on everything from a t-shirt bra to a strapless number, then something like a balconette—that’s what she called it—and a plunge. I couldn’t recall her owning any tops that would require a plunge. I also wasn’t sure what a balconette was, but if I knew my mother, she’d want me to try one on next.

I waved away the other saleswomen, each one trying to be helpful. It was a little unnerving how many times I was asked if I needed anything as they passed by, some of them en route to get bras for another customer. It had gotten to the point where I was considering saying, “I’m being helped, thank you,” in German when my mother finally emerged. Marcy followed with only one handful of hangers of various colors and shapes.

“Oh my god,” my mother exclaimed. “This place is great!” She gave me a hug as if she hadn’t seen me in a week. “Just look at me!” She held her arms out, doing a quick circle, allowing me to notice she was wearing the correct size. What was surprising was how much her appearance had changed. Her breasts no longer sagged. The uneven lumps underneath her shirt were gone. Her breasts looked a little smaller and, well, perky.

“Is that a push-up?” I couldn’t help but ask. My mother just crossed her arms and assured me it was most definitely not.

“If you want to get ready.” Marcy pointed to the stall next to the one my mother had vacated; she already had the door open. Another woman had entered my mother’s abandoned stall, clearing away the unwanted bras. “I’ll go put your mother’s purchases aside.” She scampered off before I could make a reply, leaving me little choice but to enter the stall, while my mother took over my post in the chair. I shut the door behind me with an unintended bang. I plopped down on the red-cushioned built-in seat opposite a full-sized three-paneled mirror. I was having second thoughts about this all over again. Who needed bras? They had never done anything for my back pain, so lately I had begun browsing breast reduction sites with a minor hope that this might eventually lead to a solution to my problem. However, as soon as one botched job showed up in the search results, I immediately exited and loaded up a game of solitaire.

A knock came at the door. “Can I come in?” It was Marcy.

“Sure,” I said, standing up. Marcy shut the door firmly behind her and took the measuring tape off her shoulders.

“So, you don’t remember the last time you were measured?” she asked, indicating I should stand at the center of the stall.

“No, never really thought about it anyways.”

“Well, no time like the present.” I noticed she was waiting for me to do something. She explained, “I need you to take your shirt off, Hon, for a proper measurement.”

“Oh.” I pulled my t-shirt off and turned, facing away from her toward the mirror, lifting my arms up when she asked. The cloth measuring tape wrapped snug around my ribcage and then across my breasts. Each time, she let me know before she touched me.

“I can already tell you aren’t in the right bra,” she said, draping the tape back across her shoulders. She pointed with dainty, manicured nails to the cups of my bra. “See how it seems like you’re making two more boobs at the top? It means your cups are way too small. It’s also why the center gore of your bra isn’t touching your sternum. My measurements also show that your band is way too big. I think we’ll start with some 30Es first. Anyway, I can get you a cami to put on while trying bras, if you like?” I nodded, slightly stunned at all the information. She smiled at my reflection. “Any favorite color?”

“Well, pink,” I said, indicating the bra I had on. “But, do they even make those sizes? I didn’t think anything went past a 32 or a D.” I started picturing myself as the freak of nature that I was being sized up as. A kind of Godzilla, but instead of my body it was only two giant, free-swinging boobs taking out all of Tokyo.

She gave me a patient smile. “Don’t worry. It’s really not that unusual. There are all sorts of sizes. We just want you to get the best fit possible. Especially since I’m sure you’ll want a little something to celebrate your engagement with?”

I groaned at my mother’s gossip. Still, I shouldn’t have been that surprised she would start telling the first person she shared a room with. “Well, it’s not official yet. He’s having ‘the talk’ right now.”

“Well, we can see about something a little sassy,” Marcy replied. The smile turned to a mischievous smirk. “I’ll be back with some bras for you to try on. And a cami.” She darted out the door, leaving me to either put my shirt back on or wait it out in just my bra. I opted for only putting my shirt on halfway, not trusting my safety pins to stay in place with all the on and off motions. I couldn’t help but take note of how my reflection showed all the things I liked and didn’t like about my hunched figure: my petite body, the jiggling press of belly, my shapely collarbone, arm fat and breasts.

How I could possibly be a 30E? Until now I had only thought this was a size two kinds of people had: gold diggers and porn stars, both of whom would have only obtained such a size through plastic surgery. My breasts were natural, not made by silicon. I didn’t look like a complete cartoon character either. Sure, the bra was old and it may not fit properly, but why should I care anyway? After what she said, I couldn’t imagine anything fitting me correctly. Jake didn’t care either. He made jokes about the pins showing me off as a warrior woman, not worried about being a Miss Priss.

I could hear Marcy outside the door, sidelined by my mother, chatting about my upcoming wedding. I swore I heard mention of a sparkle ball gown. This annoyed me. I didn’t understand why all of that needed to be talked about now when Jake hadn’t even proposed yet. I would be happy if we just went down to city hall, instead of making a big deal about it. Because it wasn’t. It was something we both knew would happen eventually. Not some magical fairytale like so many people seem to need, people like my mother.

Marcy knocked on the door again and wandered back in, holding a couple different bras, all shades of pink, and a black cami. “Sorry, we don’t carry any pink camis in store,” she joked. “Anything you want to try on first?”

I shrugged my shoulders and pointed to one at random; it was a pale pink with slightly darker hearts.

“Okay. Now, this is a new Freya bra, I also brought the bigger cup size since they can run small. So do you know where you’re going to have the wedding?”

“No. We’ll talk about it sometime. Not really worried about that yet,” I turned around to de-safety pin my bra.

“I’d recommend you start looking right away. Some places book up fast,” Marcy replied.

“Really? I guess that makes sense, if it’s a church. Anyways, we might just go to city hall.”

“Eloping?” Marcy handed me the bra. “I don’t know. Won’t you regret not having your moment? It only comes once after all. Besides, think of all the decorations, a great hall for your guests, and oh you’ll love looking at flowers.” I suspected Marcy had been married, at least once, and not too long ago.

“I don’t really know anything about flowers. So long as the flowers are pink in my bouquet I don’t really care.” I went to hook the new bra on as tightly as possible and was surprised I could. It wasn’t as easy compared to my safety-pinned bra, but still, who would have thought a thirty anything would fit?

“But, you’ll want more than just flowers for your bouquet,” Marcy started. “Oh my!”

I straightened up. “What? Is something wrong?”

“Oh, nothing. We just need to look at some other brands.” She looked me over with a cocked eyebrow. “The cups seem too small still. Too bad, it’s a really cute look on you. Especially with no more safety pins,” she smiled. I couldn’t help but agree; it felt nice compared to my old one, like wearing a loose t-shirt instead of a barely existent scrap of fabric and metal. It also confirmed for me what I had expected: nothing would ever fit properly.

“Let me just measure you one more time,” she said, taking off her measuring tape. The procedure was the same and the results no different. “Let’s have you try on a Fantasie balconette. It’s a little fuller in the cups,” she offered, handing me a plain dark pink one.

The result was more or less the same, the distinction being the band felt a shade snugger around my ribcage. It was good enough. I was ready to just buy the balconette, knowing there were no longer any safety pins involved, but Marcy had already left the dressing room to fetch more samples.

Each time she came back, she had a different handful of bras, along with questions about my future wedding, such as what type of cake we would have and whether we would write our own vows. I usually found myself at a loss for words. Instead of being irritated at Marcy, I wasmore irritated at my mother. If she hadn’t started gushing about a proposal that hadn’t even happened yet I wouldn’t have had to answer so many questions. Her queries lessened with each bra I tried on. Each time Marcy sucked her teeth, frowned or shook her head, evidently unsatisfied with the precision of the fit. It was quickly becoming her personal mission to find the right one. She took away the last selection of rejects and said she’d be back shortly. Then I heard a knock on the door. “How’s it going in there?” my mother asked.

I shrugged at my reflection in the mirror. It was so strange. I looked normal without a bra or shirt on. There was nothing to suggest I wasn’t. I had a nice figure. Nothing seemed out of proportion, I noticed, while I continued standing. I didn’t need to complain about my skin. I liked my short brown bob. Somehow, these two round, soft and squishy breasts were pointing out a flaw everyone else would be proud of. I couldn’t understand why when it led to frustrating shopping excursions and not getting to wear exactly what you wanted. I put on the cami, aware suddenly of all my flaws again. “I don’t know,” I said to my mother. “Something about them not fitting right, I guess. They are cute, though.” I sat down on the built-in seat, slightly hunched over to rest my chin in the palm of my hand as it perched on my knee.

“Did she say why?”

“Some of the cups were too small, but I’m not sure if that’s it. Did you have to tell her about Jake and me?”

I could imagine her flicking an imaginary piece of lint away while she replied. “Oh, can’t a mother brag a little?”

“He hasn’t even asked me yet.”

“Well, we both know he will. And when he does you’ll want to start planning right away. I mean, it’s the one time when you can be treated like a little princess!” I could hear her slight squeal of delight at the thought of seeing me walk down the aisle, choking in white lace.

“But, it’s too soon to think about that. Or if we’ll even have a wedding.”

“They’re coming back,” my mother said. Before I could ask what she meant by they, the door opened after a quick knock. Marcy entered with her measuring posse, all armed with cloth tapes and two or three bras each.

“Hi,” Marcy said. “I thought some more opinions were needed. Sorry if it seems a little crowded now, but we love to make sure everyone gets a perfect fit here.” Marcy gave a nervous laugh while the women all nodded in agreement. Each then took her tape measure in hand, wanting to make her own measurements before they circled in consultation to arrive at a final decision.

Afterward, a few bras were already being returned by one of the four, with requests for more from those who stayed behind. I think they thought I might try to escape if they left me unattended. The oldest of Marcy’s posse rubbed her chin with pale pink fingertips, her lips twisted up as she chewed absently on the inside of her bottom lip.

“Is there some kind of problem?” I managed to ask.

“It’s not a problem,” Marcy quickly spoke up. “You’re just a bit… unique.” She handed me another bra to try on, this time it wasn’t any shade of pink, but lime green. Lime green had always reminded me of a car trip where my brother vomited Mountain Dew on my skirt. There had been no rest stop for over fifty miles.

“I don’t have to buy it in this color, right?” I asked, holding it away from my body.

“No, we have a variety of colors in that style,” Marcy assured me. I put the straps on and leaned over to fill the cups with my breasts, snapping the back on the tightest hooks again. As I leaned up I could see this was again the result they didn’t want. That’s when the older lady snapped her fingers in front of her face, giving a shout, “Aha!” She immediately scurried out of the fitting room.

“So really,” I asked, “what’s up with my boobs?” I pointed at them, barely contained in their lime green basket.

The dark blonde beside Marcy, green eyes and a large mole over the right corner of her lip spoke up. “You’re just not the typical size we expect. The band is still too loose.” She moved forward and started pointing out other things that were problematic, such as the straps and how the cups weren’t forming to my breasts. I felt like an anatomy doll as she was talking about “the band needing to remain parallel,” “the cups should contain the breasts,” and something about “under-spillage.” Once her fingers were out of my personal space, I quickly put the camisole back on, so at least I could have a break from all the poking and prodding. I was tired of answering questions. I was tired of being looked at by strangers and tired, too, of looking at myself.

“So, what does it all mean?”

“We may not carry your exact size,” Marcy confessed. “But, don’t worry. I think Vern remembered a bra we overlooked.” That must have been the older woman who had sprung out earlier. It was commendable that they were trying to put a cheery face on the situation when I couldn’t really see any hope any longer.

“So do you have a wedding date picked out?”

“No, no I don’t,” I said firmly. “We’ll probably pick one out later, but for right now we really don’t have a clue. We might just head down to city hall next Wednesday if we want to.”

Before anything further could be said the woman, Vern, came back and waved around something that was thick, beige, and I hoped not the answer. I didn’t want to take off the green bra when it meant I was to try on the brown thing she held in her hands. It was hideous, but also evidently my last option. A flower-embroidered bra whose pattern must have come from a dying grandmother’s couch, its supporting underwire thick enough to be construed as a weapon. I tried the awful thing on.

Miraculously, I felt it; like Cinderella stepping into the glass slipper. I felt the curve of my back align itself and I shivered as I stared into the mirror. It fit! It was ugly but I wanted to take it home.

It wasn’t until my mother had gotten into the stall with me while Marcy announced my actual size and how it was very possible for me to be a 28F that I finally cut in, “So are all my bras going to be this ugly?”

Marcy turned her attention to me, “No, of course not. Granted, you’ll need to order online for those. There are really cute ones being sold right now in this specialty line in Poland.”

“So this is my only option?” I moved from side to side to admire my profile in the mirror.

“I’m afraid it is. Sorry. Do you want me to ring you up?”

We paid for the bras and left.

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Rachael Volk welcomes your comments on “Shopping for Bras with My Mother” at rvolk[at]cca.edu.

photo by greenkozi

Losang

by David Mitchell

Editor’s note: this is the fourth in a series of planned installments from David Mitchell’s Fulfillment. You can read part one here, part two here, and part three here.

The Bible only seems to describe Heaven negatively. Paul specifically says, “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him.” When asked why he couldn’t bring himself to finish the Summa Theologica, Thomas Aquinas replied, “Compared to what I have seen, all that I have written is straw.” When we think of Dante, we usually just think of his Inferno. Perhaps the reason we forget Dante’s Paradiso is because he makes a similar switch to negative description. His vision of Hell still retains its power to disturb and fascinate us, because, in our feeble imaginations, infinite love and joy can’t compete with finite horror and despair. Much of the language in the Paradiso describes the bittersweet experience of not being able to describe Heaven, only the sweetness that has been distilled in the heart of the pilgrim.

 

I doubt anything I write here will do justice to the one who calls herself Losang. Never within the dimness of my weak imagination could I have conceived a universe in which she existed at all, let alone one where she would willingly come skipping into my gloomy little world long enough to rub some of her stardust off on me. She made me think my pessimism was silly. She was a little like the Oracle in that respect, except younger, shorter, goofier, and I have no idea how their sex drives would compare. Many to whom I’ve told this story have little sympathy for her. That means that either I’m missing something obvious or I’ve failed to communicate what she meant to me.

Thursday morning of March 20th, 2008, I was having breakfast in the kitchen. I had to leave soon, because I had a train to catch. I was wearing a Manowar t-shirt. Specifically, it was for the Hell on Earth IV tour of 2005, during which I saw them with Serissa and some of my friends at the Worcestor Palladium. This was easily the cheesiest and most sexist t-shirt I owned. It had the leering, cartoonish image of a scaly devil raising high his pitch fork, and four naked succubi at his feet. My mother always hated it.

“Are you sure you want to wear that?” she grimaced, “She might not like that.”

“She’s a metal head, mom. Like me.”

“Well, I’m just telling you if I saw you wearing that, I’d have a bad impression.”

“Well good then!”

As if I were looking to date my mother!

“From what you told me about her she sounds  . . . immature for her age. And vulgar.”

I only grinned. Of course, there was a limit as to how much I could tell my mother and sister about Losang. They were both a little protective of me, and sometimes I got the impression that being the youngest member of the family, they subconsciously wanted to keep me mired in some sort of asexual pre-pubescent hinterland. Neither seemed comfortable with the notion that the little brother or youngest child was a ravenous satyr. “Be sure you marry a virtuous woman,” my mother warned me, as if her oblique didacticisms had bearing on anything that happened to me.

Some part of me would always remain incomprehensible to my father, but at least he left me alone most of the time. He only gave me one vaguely embarrassed warning that a woman in her 30’s was likely to be more experienced and looking for something different. I didn’t know what he thought my tastes in women were. Come to think of it, I’m not entirely sure if he thought I slept on the floor during the nights I spent at Serissa’s apartment.

I had little taste for girly girls anyway, and after Serissa, I certainly had no taste for younger and inexperienced girls. I loved sexually aggressive women, if only because they put me at ease by making their desire known. I disliked being the aggressor. And of course I had my prejudices, too. I was certain a church-going ingénue saving herself for marriage would have her feet on the ground, her eyes on the horizon, and be looking for a more conventional man. She would probably have a height requirement too. Or else she would be pleasant, but so naïve that dating her would make me feel guilty. What if she looked around my room and saw the fanciful, semi-erotic, tongue-in-cheek tip-in plates from Heavy Metal magazine above my closet, which both my mother and sister detested, and said, “Eww! What kind of a creepy, nerdy, pervert is he?” Anyone so girlishly shallow obviously wouldn’t be worth the effort. I may have worshipped the same god as the people at my church, but that didn’t mean I had much in common with them.

My mother and sister Monica warned me to be cautious, because as all sensible people know, the Internet is primarily inhabited by perverts and serial killers. I didn’t really “know” Losang, you see, so I was not to enter her house or bring her into Monica’s apartment while I was cat-sitting for her. She was extremely skeptical that any woman her age could be interested in me given that I still needed to live at home and was struggling to find out what I wanted to do with my life.

I did tell them a few things, though. I told them Losang was a good person, deeply spiritual, and that she cared about me. I told them that the chemistry between us was powerful and immediate. I told them that each of us admired the faith in the other, and when the two of us spoke about religion, it was as if we were completing each other’s sentences in different languages. I told them that I loved hearing her talk about her religion, even if I didn’t understand or agree with what she was saying, and that I disagreed a lot less than I thought I would. I told them that I would rather date a pious Buddhist than a cynical twice-a-year Christian. All of those things were completely true. I just left out the part about how when I asked Losang what she wanted to do on Thursday, she replied with only one word: “You.”

Of course, some part of me was nervous. I had to take everything Losang said with a grain of salt since I had yet to meet her, even though she told me that karma can sometimes accelerate the progress of relationships. I’d already had a few sour experiences of meeting unusually forward girls online and then being disappointed in person. The first told me that I was too nice and that she would have felt guilty taking my virginity away from me (as if that were something my 21-year-old self would have valued), the second was unlikely to have been a good match for me anyway, but I was too naïve to have known that.

The night before, I felt my excitement turn to anxiety. This was a force Losang would later tell me was called attachment. Out of habit, I found myself shuffling the cards of my Tarot deck. I didn’t claim to be a diviner, and I was extremely skeptical about Tarot cards to begin with. Nevertheless, I was fascinated by the powerful web of symbolism within them, so before I knew it I found myself poring over the quaint, colored pencil illustrations of the Hansen-Roberts deck on the floor of my bedroom whenever I was concerned about something. The more agitated I was, the more negative the spread. Sometimes the spread laid my thoughts out rather clearly. Other times, it was of no help. Occasionally, the deck itself even seemed to mock me or suggest that I was wasting my time consulting it. But somehow, the more I did it the better I became at understanding the strange dream logic of Tarot symbolism.

A Tarot spread is the ultimate Rorschach test. I found that I made fairly accurate readings about other people, and infuriatingly vague readings about myself. I successfully predicted, for example, that my ex would find herself in another relationship about a month before I heard the news from a friend. The spreads I made later were unclear and contradictory. One suggested the relationship would be short, another that she would end up marrying him (the most recent spread has strongly suggested the former). I had no idea what sort of person Serissa’s new boyfriend was, but I didn’t want to know, and I pitied the poor fool. Every time I asked a question about Serissa, the Queen of Swords showed up somewhere in the spread. This card denoted an intelligent, witty, and cold woman. If reversed (and she frequently was), it accentuated her worst qualities.

This time, I asked about my future meeting with Losang, using the Celtic cross spread. The last card I drew, the most important card of the spread, was the Fool. I blinked for a moment. I was hoping for something more obvious, like the Empress or the Lovers. The Fool is the first card in the Major Arcana, and he represents a new beginning. He is infinite potential, fearlessly heading out into the unknown, and having faith in the future. He is innocent, but in the best possible way. He is child-like, but adult. He tells you to take a chance. I closed my eyes and smiled, feeling my anxiety turn back into excitement.

?

I was standing outside of the Red Line station in Somerville, at Davis Square, when I met her. I’d only seen one picture of Losang on the net, and the quality wasn’t very good, so I didn’t know what to expect. She stood barely five feet tall, and the blonde dye in her hair I’d seen from her photo had all but faded to a few streaks in a nest of brown. She peered out at me from under a hoodie. Her face looked vaguely Jewish to me, though she told me later that she was French and Italian, not that any of it made a difference to me in the slightest. Her eyes were dark and hypnotic, her nose and mouth were large, her chin was dimpled, and there was a certain insouciance about her which made me smile almost immediately. In person she also giggled as randomly as she did over the phone. She even stuck her tongue out randomly. And she talked nearly nonstop.

It was too cold and windy to go anywhere in Somerville, so we headed inside, to her house, where I quickly learned that she happened to live only one street away from my sister, beyond the bike trail that I normally walked on. It was around 1:30 PM and she told me her mother would be coming home at 5:00, but that she also would likely not approve of bringing me into the house for the same reasons my mother and sister didn’t want her to enter theirs.

The house itself was as cozy and beautiful as the rest of the homes I’d seen in Somerville. Losang had her own room upstairs, which could only be accessed by a single narrow staircase. This place was another realm entirely, completely separate from the sensibilities of the rest of the house. There was something interesting in every corner, and along every inch of the wall, whether it was a drawing of a multi-armed bodhisattva, a cloth Slayer poster, a picture of the Dalai Lama, or smaller posters for Blind Guardian, Iced Earth, Iron Maiden, or Dimmu Borgir. There were unlit candles, small statues of Buddha, and in one corner, a beautiful altar. Books of all varieties were stacked about as high as the ceiling in another. I could have stared for hours.  Before I had a chance to do that, Losang showed me the ring her ex gave her from where it was on her dresser. It was a platinum ring with three diamonds in the center. Then I noticed the ring she wore on her finger. It was silver, with three tiny skulls in lieu of diamonds.

“I got a ring for my ex two Christmases ago,” I said, “but not an engagement ring, just something she asked for.”

Since I didn’t know or care about jewelry myself, Serissa needed to be very specific about the sort of ring she wanted. In this case, it was silver and onyx. One of the inlays chipped off a few months before the breakup, perhaps an evil omen.

“You don’t have to worry about anything like that with me,” Losang said, “I’ve got enough rings.”

“Yeah,” I said, “I don’t like weddings. They’re expensive, stressful, and tedious.”

“Yeah, no kidding.”

“Well, there was this one wedding I went to that wasn’t so bad,” I said, “Most of the guests left early, so we had the hall and a single DJ to ourselves. I got them to play Slayer’s ‘Raining Blood.’ It was unconventional anyway; one of my ex’s friends was getting married, and she wore a red wedding dress.”

“I’d wear jeans.”

I laughed. Then I reached into my backpack and pulled out a copy of The Bridge volume 4 and handed it Losang.

“This is the journal I said I was published in. My piece is up front, and I have another somewhere else. Be sure you read Tara’s memoir first, though. Well, everything in here is worth reading, but if you’re pressed for time . . .”

‘Great,” she said, placing the journal on her dresser, “So what was it you wanted to do, watch a movie?”

“Sure, if you want,” I said, “I brought El Topo.”

“Excellent!”

El Topo is one of my favorite films, but certainly not a movie for all tastes. It’s a cult acid western; a bizarre, powerful, surrealistic religious allegory of sorts, unique and utterly impossible to classify. It’s like a kaleidoscope of eastern and western religious images and exceedingly brutal violence. Come to think of it, I would say this movie is like Christianity and Buddhism having sex.

There was nowhere to sit except her bed, so we sat there and watched.  Before the opening credits, we saw the eponymous hero onto the screen. He was a black-clad gunslinger riding out of the desert, a naked child in tow and a black umbrella shielding both of them. Instinctively, I was about to put my right arm around Losang, who by now looked much better without the hoodie, but I stopped myself.

“Uh . . . is it alright if I touch you?”

“Sure!”

Just as I’d mentioned that El Topo’s son in the film was also Alejandro Jodorowsky’s son in real life, Losang leaned her head against my shoulder and nuzzled me slightly.

“What are you trying to do?” I grinned.

“Dunno, maybe . . . kiss you?”

So our lips met, hers more voraciously than mine, and I quickly discovered that Losang had a long and versatile tongue, massive suction power, and apparently didn’t need to breathe very often. After a few minutes, I said:

“You know that friend of mine I mentioned earlier, Tara? On that day when I hung out with her we eventually started making out—”

“Nice!”

“—and at the time, I could have said that of the four women who kissed me, she’d put the previous three to shame. Now I can say that of the five women—”

She just laughed and kissed me again, reminding me that perhaps she was the person she said she’d be over the net and the phone, and in that case, we had a very specific itinerary we needed to get out of the way as soon as possible. No force in Heaven, on Earth, or in the Pure Lands was going to prevent it from happening, not even El Topo.

Instinctively, I laid Losang down and kissed her again, nibbling her neck lightly, and every portion of her that was exposed, caressing it with my lips. I slipped my hands into her tight black shirt, trying to find a way under her bra. I was grinding against her the whole time, slowly and rhythmically. Then I backed away.

“Sorry,” I said, “I don’t really know what I’m doing. It’s been—”

“Oh, you know what you’re doing, alright!” said Losang, her face flushed, “You’re in the right place.”

After a beat, she said, “Ugh, I’m so tired. I didn’t get a whole lot of sleep last night.”

“Well if you’re too tired, I don’t want to—”

“No no no no no, I’m not too tired!” Losang giggled as she grabbed my shoulders and pulled me closer to her.

I can scare myself so easily. I knew the number of notches in Losang’s bedpost exceeded her age in years, but a number shouldn’t matter. It wasn’t jealousy or the sexist double standard that troubled me. I just didn’t think 23 years of involuntary celibacy, followed by a two year period of having sex with an anorgasmic Serissa less than 120 times made for a very impressive sexual resume. What I was about to learn was that my number didn’t matter either.

“Why do I get the impression you’re going to be a natural born fantastic lay?” Losang asked me via IM a few days earlier.

“I don’t know,” I replied, “Why do you?”

“I’m very intuitive about these things,” she said.

?

Nine months earlier, I was lying on the bed in Serissa’s old apartment, waiting for her. We’d made it a habit of shutting the door carefully and blocking it with the vacuum cleaner to keep the cat from joining us. It was part of Serissa’s routine. Having me visit her was routine as well. Doing so was “maintenance” for the relationship, she would say, and maintenance was work. Serissa was always eager to get work out of the way first, no matter how indignant it might be.

Pathologically cynical though she was, Serissa had her two feet grounded firmly in reality and never had any doubt as to what she wanted to do. I was the Mittyesque boyfriend whom she was growing to resent because I was not able to do for her what, at the time, she was still unable to do for herself. Her physiology was so altered by her old medication that with her recent switch, this was the first time she ever felt any sort of sensation or had any awareness of her body’s yearnings at all. Nearly every source I’d read on the subject told me the same thing: For a pre-orgasmic partner, you can certainly help her along the way, but you can’t be expected to do it for her. My attempts to pleasure her were as futile as trying to reboot a defenestrated computer. Nonetheless, I was still willing to try, and confident that she’d get there eventually. But being as goal-oriented as Serissa was, didn’t matter to her. If I truly cared, she reasoned, I would have found a way to make her climax by now, and she could prove this point to herself by providing a hundred examples of me paying intense detail to something I cared passionately about.

I watched with delight as Serissa stood before me and unceremoniously slipped off her thong while keeping her bra and socks on. I was completely naked, but she never was. That was our relationship. When she lay down next to me, I smiled, turned and began to caress her, but she pushed me away.

“You don’t want me to massage you first?” I asked, “Or go d—”

“Look, I just want to fuck, alright?!” she said, her voice flat and tense.

“Alright.”

“You look hard enough. Now lube up and get in.”

I did as instructed. The cat wasn’t whining outside the door, so there was no sound to be heard except the bedsprings. Whilst keeping rhythm I lost myself in staring at her face, neck, and shoulders, noting the beautiful manner in which her hair fell back against the bed and exposed her face. I loved everything I saw, every imperfect square inch of her skin. A minute or two later, I said:

“Heh. I still have that stupid song st—”

“Quiet, you’re distracting yourself.”

“What’s—”

“Don’t talk.”

“Are you al—”

“Don’t talk.”

I tried to kiss her, but she violently turned her head to the side, not changing her stony expression. I was dismayed. Having had enough, I tried to pull out of her, but her legs were locked around my waist, and she wasn’t letting me go anywhere. I managed to finish much more quickly than usual this time, not breaking a sweat, after which Serissa went off to shower. I didn’t join her as I normally did. Instead, I stayed there in silence, so disturbed I didn’t think to get dressed again. I sat on the floor and wondered what had just happened. When Serissa came back into the room, fully dressed, she folded her arms and said angrily, “How long did it take for you to write that anti-Islam post you made on the Net?”

“I don’t know,” I said, “I wasn’t keeping track of the time.”

“By the looks of it, I would say that it took you about two hours.”

I had no idea what she thought this had to do with anything, but it didn’t matter what I thought anymore. Actions spoke louder than words, and that was Serissa’s motto. William of Ockham could have supplied her with another: “Plurality is not to be assumed without necessity.” It was certainly a principle she knew how to apply to her life.

?

The Ghost of Serissa drifted slowly but steadily through the streets of Somerville, having followed me a few cars away on the train, into the subway, through the bike path, and outside Losang’s house. She did not follow us inside. I paid no particular attention to her, but I knew she was there. Her steely face never changed. In front of her she held her basket-hilted sword, the blade pointed toward the sky. It divided her face if you looked directly at her, but she didn’t appear to be looking at the weapon at all.

Gabriel’s horn sounded from far above, summoning the dead before God, while the rest of the angels chanted Dies Irae at a thousand decibels. In the sky a bright light could be seen, the holy strength of Christ and Buddha restoring karma and invoking divine justice. This light intensified into a pinpoint, then fell down toward the Earth, toward America, toward Massachusetts, and toward a little house in Somerville. As it neared the narrow street with blinding speed and intensity, its shape began to solidify. It was a winged being, clad in heavy robes with flowing sleeves. He had the head of a ram, and held a huge sword, his left hand on the hilt, his right on the ricasso. He spread his wings as he neared the ground, their span stretching from sidewalk to sidewalk, brushing trees, power lines, and the hoods of cars as he descended. When his feet lightly touched the yellow lines on the asphalt, the Angel lifted his blade into the air. Twirling the sword, he released a terrifying holy light that shamed the sun. Serissa’s ghost staggered backwards as she floated in the air, raising her sword to parry in defense. Her feet touched the ground, and she found herself rigid. Her body became flesh once again.

Deus vult!” the Angel roared.

Hesitating no further, he swung his sword overhead, and lopped her head off.

?

“Just like I said!” Losang gasped. “A natural born fantastic lay!”

Now I’ll spare you most of the details this time, except I am quite pleased to report that I found Losang to be a thousand times more responsive than Serissa, and with at least a hundred times the endurance and flexibility. I enjoyed myself immensely, but not as much as she did. She said things to me that until this point, I’d only heard women say in porn, and watching her changing expressions was fascinating.

“Are you gonna come for me . . . ?” Losang asked eagerly, knowing that I was at the point of no return. Having been satiated long ago, she was now hanging on for the rest of the ride, and enjoying every second of it. She locked her eyes with mine as I held myself up with my straining arms and worked steadily on her. A few minutes later we were finished. I sat back, though I was still inside her, my legs folded beneath me. She was lying back on the bed, propping herself up with her elbows, grinning, a beautiful kalachakra seed syllable necklace around her neck. The end credits to El Topo rolled behind me. We were busily discussing Jesus, Buddha, J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, Jon Schaffer, the recent death of E. Gary Gygax, the films of Martin Scorsese, the Catholic church, Blind Guardian, Iced Earth, Dimmu Borgir, and Slayer.

“I like how your hair’s messed up now,” she said. “It’s so cute.”

I was sweating profusely, but she wasn’t.

“I really ought to shower,” I said. “Are you going to join me? My ex and I used to—ah, never mind.”

“’Cause you like showering with girls,” she chuckled. “I’m all good. I showered this morning.”

When I stepped off of the bed, painfully unfolding myself from the position I’d assumed for some time, I wobbled around for a few seconds like a newborn lamb. I wasn’t inhabiting the same body anymore. This newly born incarnation needed to be baptized, so I awkwardly picked up my clothes from the floor, shambled down the stairs, found the bathroom, and showered.  By the time I came up, Losang was reclining back on the bed smoking a joint and drinking from an open can of beer. It was like a parody of one of those post-coital cigarette scenes in the movies.

“Sorry, if it bothers you I’ll stop,” she said. “I’m just so tired from yesterday. Didn’t get much sleep. I was thirsty too, and too lazy to go downstairs. This was the only thing I had in here.”

“Eh, I don’t drink too often . . .”

“Me neither. I mostly just drink with friends. I got this from a friend I was just hanging out with the other day, and he drinks a lot.”

“What are you watching now?”

Kundun. I watch it every day, it’s pathetic.”

As I sat by Losang and caressed her, and we continued our conversation about the things that had influenced us the most. Our conversations had no beginning or end, and we always had something to talk about. While we talked, Losang placed her beer on the nightstand and nonchalantly put her hand on my crotch instead. The world needed more women like this.

I somehow found myself saying, “And here I was thinking women like you only existed in porn, anime, and Heavy Metal comics.”

It pains me considerably to think I said this at all. Even expressing my delighted incredulity, I had too few frames of reference. This is exactly the sort of thing Serissa would have remembered and then thrown back in my face later when she was pissed off about something else, long after I’d forgotten it, and even after I would have cried when I realized how awful it sounded. But Losang, thank the bodhisattvas, was able to hear the music of my speech and not just my words.

“Love that movie!” she said.

“I have quite a few stacks of the magazine in my closet.”

“Awesome.”

“I have some of the tip-in plates hanging on the walls in my room, too. My mom just thinks it’s ugly and juvenile, and it’ll drive women away.”

Losang rolled her eyes.

“Well, maybe I could have conceived someone like you existing,” I said again, “but not that you would have actually been interested in me.”

“Why?” she said laughing, “Don’t be silly! Sorry I’m not looking your way. If I look at you I’ll just want to kiss you, and it’ll taste kinda gross. I really shouldn’t have gone for the beer.”

“I guess we missed all of El Topo.”

“It was a good ice breaker. There’ll be plenty of time to watch it again.”

We talked for about a half hour, and as I started to explain a little about what she’d missed, we both stopped when we heard the sound of a car pulling into the driveway.

“My mom came home early,” she said. “Just be quiet.”

I froze. Then I heard a door opening downstairs.

“Losang? You there?” I heard her mother say from downstairs.

“Yeah, I’m here,” she called back.

I whispered anxiously, asking her what we were going to do now. She just shrugged and giggled.  So far as I remembered, my things were in Losang’s room, but I’d left my jacket downstairs on the coat rack. About an hour earlier I could hear my cell phone ringing from where it was in the jacket pocket. Losang, bouncing merrily astride me at the time, shouted, “Sorry, he can’t talk now! He’s being fucked!” Now it was probably time to get my jacket on, and see who called me.

“I have to pee,” Losang said, “but I’m so tired.”

“Uh, you are above pissing yourself, I hope.”

She laughed hysterically.

“Good one!” she said, “Yep, definitely above that. Alright, wait just a little bit.”

As she left the room, I began put my shoes on, and made sure everything was back in my bags. When Losang returned, she said to me, “I told her you’re here, and she’s alright with that, but she doesn’t want to meet you right now. She says she looks like shit now.”

“Who did you tell her I was?”

“Well, I told her a little about you already. I just said that I’d known you for about a month and we’d hung out before. Anyway, you can step out without a problem. She’s waiting in her room.”

“Okay,” I said, “I’m probably going to be in Somerville tomorrow most of the day. Do you want to hang out then?”

“Yeah!” Losang said. “I want to have sex again already. Ugh. I’m such a hornball.”

I produced some Tic Tacs from my pocket and generously poured them into her hands so she could kiss me before I left. I then walked a block, turned right, crossed the street, and found myself at Monica’s apartment. I found the keys in the mailbox where she told me they’d be, and with plenty of time left in the day for me to tend to her cat. The poor guy didn’t mind being alone for long periods of time, but if left alone overnight, he’d feel abandoned and become physically ill. He was once a stray, but was rather tame now.

The huge yellow tabby greeted me as soon as I opened the door at the top of the stairs, and just as quickly I needed to shut it before he could attempt to flee. The Angel was sitting on the couch in Monica’s apartment, his bloody sword resting against the wall. He was reading a newspaper.

“Hmm . . . the Dalai Lama is threatening to resign if the violence in China continues,” he said. “Not good . . .”

Then he looked up at me.

“Congratulations, David,” he said, sounding both laudatory and sarcastic at the time, “You got laid for the first time in nine months. And there you were fearing it would be more than a year, or that it would never happen again. So now what?”

I checked the message I’d received while I was with Losang, and found it was my sister, telling me that she was on her way out then. So I called her back. The first thing she asked me was, “So how did your meeting with Losang go? I want to know everything.”

“Trust me, Monica, you don’t. But I will say that it went very well.”

“Well good then! Just be careful. Just because someone is a good person, and is cool, doesn’t necessarily mean that she is for you. There are many attractive interesting people who may not be compatible in the long term. It’s all good.”

“One piece of very important advice when you are talking to a woman: Don’t talk about your ex very much—say very minimal things, just say that ‘It just didn’t work out.’ When you talk about an ex, it’s usually an indication that you’re not interested in the party that you’re talking to, that you’re still wounded or desperate. I’ve been on both ends of this conversation.”

“Uh-huh.”

Of course, I’d told Losang all about my ex, long before I ever met her in person, and she told me all about hers as well. Losang told me that she didn’t hate anyone, not even her ex, who dragged out their breakup for one last miserable year. She was working two jobs then to support him while he claimed unemployment, but apparently that wasn’t enough.

Monica just reminded me of things I had to do for the cat, thanked me for watching him, and said goodbye.

?

As the Brain reached for Losang’s file, so that he could make note of some important updates, he noticed a few tiny pieces of colored paper scattered on the top of the file cabinet. As he reached his manual extensors to examine them, he noticed they were different colors, and so tiny it would be hard to remove all of them without theaid of a broom or vacuum cleaner. The whole chamber was in need of one, anyway, but this would not do.

“What is this?” said the Brain, “Confetti?”

Then he looked up, and noticed longer strips of colored paper draped around the chamber, hung from the various instruments attached to the ceiling. He reached up, and ripped the first down, but quickly noticed another, and another . . . more than what his eyes could focus on without becoming lost. Then he saw something truly strange.

The Heart and the Penis were waltzing together in the center of the chamber. The Heart was barely recognizable. His skin had actually regenerated several layers, and even more remarkably, it was no longer a ghastly pallor. When the Heart turned to face the Brain, he faced him with open eyes that sparkled. Some of his hair had grown back, too. It was blonde and curly. His limbs looked pudgier than normal, and he stood on his feet. His energy barely contained, he skipped in place and ran around the cabinets, vaulting up onto each one.

“Look at me!” he said.

“You ought to get some clothes on,” said the Penis.

“You’re standing!” said the Brain. “And walking!”

“And I can see you! I love the tie!”

“I . . . do my best,” said the Brain.

Self-consciously, the Brain, brushed his tie, worrying that bits of confetti stuck to it. There were none, but specs of rust from his manual extensors rubbed off instead. The Heart jumped down from the tallest cabinet and skipped around the Brain, giggling randomly. He even stuck his tongue out randomly.

“What are you two doing?” the Brain asked.

“We’re celebrating,” said the Penis, “Wanna join us?”

“Celebrating what, exactly?”

“What do you think, silly?” said the Heart.

“We haven’t won yet!” said the Brain, “What transpired was good, but this is not a victory. We need to remain vigilant and—”

“I sure know a victory when I score it,” said the Penis, “The fuck of a lifetime!”

“Oh really?” said the Brain, “You look . . . bruised.”

“I’ve been through worse,” the Penis grinned, “but never better!”

“I see,” said the Brain. Then, as he looked down as the Heart darted around him, and gripped him by the wrist.

“Ow!” said the Heart, “What are you–?!”

“What’s in your hand?”

It was an empty syringe.

“Losang gave it to me,” the Heart grinned, “It’s so much better than the ones Serissa used to give me. And it’s so powerful. I can’t believe how—”

“We haven’t even sterilized this yet.”

“It’s alright,” said the Heart, “I’m not addicted, I just—”

“You have the final say, but it’s me who relinquishes it to you, and I have not yet made up my mind.”

“B-but . . . y-you . . . I’m not addicted! I . . . I . . .”

“Aw, c’mon,” said the Penis, “He can have some fun every now and then.”

“Again, spoken like a true altruist,” said the Brain.

“Who are you to tell him what to do, anyway?”

“I’m management!”

“But I’m not addicted!” giggled the Heart, “I can get off it at any time and I’ll be just fine. I healed all by myself. Honest!”

He slipped his wrist out from the Brain’s grasp, then he vaulted up onto the largest cabinet before the Brain could grab him.

“Wanna see me back flip off this thing?”

“Get down. Now.”

“Come on. Not even once?”

“You have not healed. Your condition has momentarily improved. That’s all. Now get down from there.”

The Heart sighed dejectedly, rolled his eyes, and did as ordered. The Brain ripped down the remaining paper strips in front of him, activating a switch which caused the Monitor to spring back to life. There they saw me, reclining on Monica’s bed, my eyes closed. The cat, Gordie, was somewhere near my feet. The Heart was jumping around giddily, but stopped himself when he saw the sight.

“What’s he doing if he’s not asleep?” asked the Heart.

“Praying to his god,” answered the Brain, “Giving thanks for this day, which he considers to be a good one. Something like that.”

“What do you think of God?” asked the Heart.

“Not my area.”

“Why not? Should it be mine? Or his?”

“Never been a fan of that religion,” sighed the Penis, “I’ve got my own goddess, and my own temple. I’m just here with you guys so I can find a way in every once in a while.”

“Too many people make the mistake of ignoring me when they don’t like what I have to say,” said the Brain, “or only listening to me when my area of expertise is limited. What matters on the intellectual battlefield isn’t so much what position you occupy, but why. I can be re-programmed to defend whatever side you join, but I am not the final arbiter.”

“When we finally knew of re-packaged versions of the evolutionary software which advertised full compatibility with monotheistic systems, they were user-friendly, redundant, and far less flexible than our own. I had hacked the software from the old versions to approximate them years ago, and in some cases they worked better. Our old systems have worked with it from the start. There are occasional bugs and crashes, but I’m confident I’ll be able to fix them in time.”

After a few minutes of silence, the Brain asked the Heart, “What about you? What’s your opinion of God?”

“I don’t know,” said the Heart. “I love him sometimes, and other times I hate him. I wish he made me different. Bigger, stronger, maybe. More complete. Maybe if he put you in charge of everything instead.”

The Penis snorted.

“Then I suppose you aren’t a very reliable authority on God, either,” said the Brain.

“Well who is, then?” said the Heart, “The Soul?”

“From what I gather.”

“Why don’t we hear from him more?”

“We don’t even know if our soul is a ‘him.’ Together we are male and heterosexual, make no mistake, but as for what our soul is, I can’t be certain. All I know is that our Soul is very, very old, much older than the rest of us, and it isn’t going out of its way to help. It did send me one email the other day, telling me it approved if we all agreed about Losang, but that was all. She might have an old soul too.”

“He must have a lot of things to say about her,” said the Heart, “Why doesn’t he . . . or she . . . show up here and tell us more?”

“It’s not interested in our concerns,” said the Brain, “It has another agenda to deal with.”

“What’s that?”

“Not my area.”

“Doesn’t that make things harder for us?”

“Yes. It does.”

They turned back toward the monitor, watching my progress and gathering data.

?

The next day I’d met up with Losang in mid afternoon. She was waiting to hear from a friend on some important matter for half the day, and this person took forever to respond. This time, we went on a walk through Somerville, though it was so windy going back inside would have been preferable, if her mother wasn’t home. We found ourselves in a cozy tea shop somewhere downtown, where Losang, reading a free local paper, began to complain about the state of the world (or more specifically, the situation in Tibet and China), and ranted slightly about her ex. None of this surprised me in the slightest, though she quickly stated, “Sorry, I’m at my worst today. I’m so judgmental, and I really shouldn’t be. Didn’t get much sleep last night either; just cat napped and smoked.”

“Heh, you say you’re at your worst, and I’m still enjoying the company. When my ex was at her worst I didn’t even want to be alive, let alone in the same building as her. I guess when I’m at my worst, I just want to be left alone, but I don’t take it out on other people.”

“Yeah. I don’t either.”

At some point, and I can’t remember exactly how, Losang brought up OKCupid once more, and I knew I had to ask her a question that troubled me slightly.

I said, “What are we going to do regarding status now? Do we change it?”

“What is it on now, anyway?” she said, “Single? Why don’t we just keep it like that, for now at least. I don’t want to get too serious too soon. I don’t want to hurt you. Or anyone.”

I was confused. Of course I took relationships seriously. I didn’t date casually, and I especially didn’t have casual sex.

“What do you mean? What’s ‘serious’?”

“I—I don’t know,” she said. “Well I knew this was coming. I’m hanging out with someone else, nothing too serious, but it’s an open arrangement. It’s not you, it’s me. I have problems with attachment, so I don’t want to rush anything.”

I’d completely forgotten I was even waiting for the other shoe to drop. I supposed this was it.

“‘Hanging out’?” I said, “We fucked for two hours yesterday.”

“Not so loud!” Losang giggled.

“Oh, uh, sorry. You referred to the time we spent together as ‘hanging out’. You often talk about ‘hanging out’ with your friends, too, most of whom are male. If half of ‘hanging out’ with me consisted of fucking me, then . . .”

She was laughing before I finished.

“Oh, no, no, no, no, no. You and him are the only people I hang out with in the fucking sense. He was burned badly by his ex. He really likes me, but doesn’t want a serious relationship, which is fine, because I didn’t either.”

Perhaps the ghost of this fellow’s ex required more exorcisms to be dispelled.

“You do seem to be tending to the wounded and dispossessed, my dear,” I said.

“Yeah,” she said laughing, “I try to be all things to all people.”

“What do you intend to do?”

“I don’t know.”

“Well . . .” I said, not knowing where to begin, “you do realize that I’m no longer chatting with the cougar lady because of this, and she was pretty understanding about it. It was an easy calculation to decide that if she wasn’t looking for a long-term relationship with anyone, it would be more worthwhile to spend time with someone with whom I could plausibly have a relationship with.”

I indicated Losang.

“Oh, definitely,” she said.

“And I also remember Tara telling me that she was like a ‘guy’ and that sex didn’t need to have any real emotional connection in order for her to enjoy it. I think I also told you about how I probably couldn’t have a one-night stand without getting attached.”

“Definitely. I could, but I prefer not to.”

“She’d told me that she wasn’t looking to be in a relationship, and after that night when we shared a kiss, I was confused and anxious for about a month, since I didn’t know if that meant she’d reconsidered and I had my foot in the door after all. I was fine either way, but that gray area of ambiguity is frustrating as hell.”

“Well, sure.”

“But I was the Knight of Cups. I was prepared to dive in head first if she’d given me the word.”

“Of course. I definitely know what you mean.”

“I drove forth to meet her on Valentine’s Day, as if I were riding on my hippocamp, offering her a cup, and keeping my lance hidden, though it was still hers to direct if she wanted it.”

Losang laughed hard, enjoying the innuendo.

“But ultimately,” I said, “if she isn’t looking to be in a relationship now and doesn’t know when she will be, that means I shouldn’t be waiting for her.”

“Right.”

“So . . .” I said, raising my hands, “what should I be doing now?”

“I don’t know,” Losang said. By now, her smile had faded.

“You even said before, when I was trying to make sure we were on the same page, that you didn’t want a one-night stand with me . . .”

She looked alarmed for a second when I said this.

“It didn’t mean nothing. It wasn’t just a ‘whatever’ thing. I really, really, like you. I love spending time with you. Oh, god. I’m being stupid. I know, I know, I’m trying to have my cake and eat it too.”

“Well, I’m glad you’re admitting to that. I guess I’m not sure what I should do because I don’t want to cross a line by investing too much. I may have done that already . . .”

“You haven’t. Don’t worry about it.”

“I meant in my heart, Losang.”

“I know. Me too.”

“I mean, I don’t even have to utter that dreaded three-word incantation in order for it to be in effect.”

“I KNOW. Me too.”

Losang was still paralyzed no matter how I tried to dissect the issue, but honest about it. I wasn’t hurt, just confused. I didn’t consider myself a jealous type, especially with someone I’d only known for a week and a day, and whose last name I’d heard once and forgotten. What were they saying in the Council chamber?

“Works for me!” said the Penis.

“But not for me!” said the Heart.

“I told you so!” said the Brain.

And now what? I didn’t want to impose a timeframe for a decision on her. We were intellectually, emotionally, spiritually, and now that we had the chance to find out, sexually compatible. Honestly, what else was there? Deciding I wanted to attempt a serious relationship with her was the easiest choice I could have possibly made. But I decided to cast aside the issue and enjoy the time we still had. If it were possible to be with her in earnest, I supposed, this was the way to do it.

Unfortunately, the weather outside was still windy, so we walked back, and this time, when we passed Monica’s apartment, I let her in. I knew we didn’t have much time (Losang had a class at the Dharma center she wanted to attend), so I thought it would be good to get out from the windy cold for at least a moment.

I introduced Losang to Gordie the cat, who was comfortably assuming the meatloaf position on the recliner. She stroked him while lovingly reciting a Tibetan prayer, which sounded like baby talk to me given the tone of her delivery, but she told me it was said to animals to help them ascend into the next incarnation. I said little while she fawned over the cat from where he sat, in his high throne. Losang was sitting on the floor, stroking him, and I reclined against her. Neither of us said anything for a while.

?

In the opening scene of Much Ado About Nothing, Beatrice remarks that she would rather hear her dog bark at a crow than a man swear he loves her. I have not known a single woman for whom this line wouldn’t apply. Women seem to have more important things to consider when selecting a mate, such as height and income. For selfless, unconditional love and affection, there are dogs.

God knows I’ve uttered the dreaded three-word incantation numerous times. To this day I am not convinced any good ever comes from doing so. I never knew what any of the women were thinking when I did. Did any of them actually love me back? Were they moved? Amused? Uncomfortable? Chagrined? Grateful? Embarrassed for me? Did their hearts just bleed for me? Or did they think I was creepy? I still can’t tell you.

I’m sure you could tell me that what I felt for Losang was not actual love, whatever ineffable definition should be attached to that word (because deciding whether you love someone is apparently like obtaining gnosis or enlightenment) but joy, hope, infatuation, affection, attachment, and lust instead. I won’t attempt to refute you, but I should at least raise the question as to why this doesn’t also apply to Serissa. She would be the first to argue that it does. She could easily work herself into an endless loop of logical nihilism to deconstruct my love for her as joy, hope, infatuation, affection, attachment, and lust as well. If she actually admitted that the love was genuine, either hers or mine, she would then proceed to vitiate love itself. The end result is the same: If the man means nothing to you, neither does his love or the love you once felt for him.

To my understanding, there were only four beings in the universe willing to love Serissa unconditionally, in the truest agape sense. They were, in descending order of importance:

  1. God
  2. her mother
  3. myself
  4. the cat

“Of course the cat loves me,” Serissawould say, “It’s because I feed him kibble.”

I happen to think that dry kibble and tap water are perfectly valid reasons to love someone, but even if they aren’t, that in no way vitiates the experience of a cat’s love. Serissa seemed to think, probably to this day, that I only ever sought her out of desperation. This insults both of us, which is fine for Serissa, because she will also admit that she is a different person now. Maturation was a process of replacement for her. For me, it was a process of accretion. I was a lot like that cat, I think, except I was bigger, vastly more intelligent, and I hadn’t been entirely neutered.

In her more mischievous moments, when Serissa wiggled my glasses for purposes of annoying me, I might often move my head back just barely out of the range of her ministrations. Without intending to, this made her laugh.

“You really are like that cat!” she’d say.

And of course, I did my little things to annoy her and make her laugh at the same time, like putting two of my fingers into her thong while she reclined on her side, happily announcing that I was a Renaissance crossbowman loading my arbalest, pulling the elastic, and letting loose at the enemy. Rarely could I contain myself long enough to keep my hands off of her.

“You are so affectionate!” she would say, with something that sounded like astonishment or scorn.

The cat could seldom keep away either. I admit that a good portion of our relationship consisted of making fun of that cat. He had the personality of a dog. Serissa got him when he was a kitten, but even grown up he was utterly infatuated with her. It didn’t matter if she yelled at him to go away when he annoyed her with his meowing, or if she teased him into chasing a laser pointer dot that led him into a wall. She was pretty good at doing a cat impression, too, so whenever the cat meowed, she would reply in the cat tongue. He would meow back obsequiously, apparently unaware that Serissa was mocking him. It was the tone of her speech he reacted to, not the content. I was a bit like that too. It was a scary sight when the cat actually angered her. I remember one morning in which Serissa burst into the room, waking me up (she got up much earlier than I did), water sprayer in her hand.

“WHERE IS HE?!”

I had no idea what was happening. It turned out the cat vomited on the floor of the bathroom the night before, and Serissa stepped in it on her way into the shower, ruining her perfect routine. If there was one thing Serissa hated more than herself or the scale she stood on every day (she could tell you how many calories you would gain from a single Tic Tac or from licking a postage stamp), it was any change to her clockwork universe that she didn’t personally mandate.

The cat was hiding under the bed, and when Serissa found him, she dragged him out by the nape of the neck and administered three water sprays to his face. When he fled once more, Serissa was choking in panic, screaming that she needed to kill herself. If I tried to physically calm or restrain her, she would push me away. Even greeting her at the door when she came home from grocery shopping was too overwhelming for her, so I had to wait in the living room instead. Seeing me out of bed, out of her way, and on my knees, as it was all I could manage, she asked me what I was doing.

“Um . . . praying,” I said.

“Don’t ask God to help me! He hates me!”

This was a cry of despair and not cynicism. Her adoptive father was a Protestant minister, and quite fond of corporal punishment. Somehow, she’d gotten the idea burned into her head long ago that she was destined for Hell, and absolutely deserved it. But that’s only half of Christian theology.

The God I believed in died a cruel and lingering death, and on her behalf. My view of religious faith was pragmatic, and I didn’t believe in negative reinforcement. Believe because our beliefs in this life matter. Beliefs precede action, so believe well. Believe because it’s worth believing in, not out of fear of Hell.

Intellectually, I was closer to agnosticism than she was. I doubted, but believed because I knew that my nature was so suited to my faith that losing it would be pointless. Serissa never doubted the existence of God, but she was effectively an atheist. Her conditioning was as such that any thought of God made her physically sick. She couldn’t sit through a mass with my mother and me without tearing up. When she approached a nun some time before she met me to express her concerns, the nun told her exactly what I would have told her: The only thing likely to send her to Hell was her certainty that she would end up there in the first place. Was Judas’ bigger sin betraying Jesus, or believing that God wouldn’t forgive him? Ultimately, the nun had to tell Serissa that if her experience of God was that negative, it would be best for her to avoid religion altogether until she was able to sort it out.

I suppose if it were possible to prove that God didn’t exist, most believers would be devastated (and then go back to worshipping in whatever manner suits them best). Serissa told me she would be relieved. It would give her freedom to kill herself and not to fear Hell. This was the only reason she had not killed herself thus far. That, and the knowledge that most methods at her disposal would more than likely fail, and disable her in the process.

If she couldn’t accept God’s love for her, why should it follow that she could accept mine? She’d already seen her mother, acting more like an older sister than a mother, move from one idiotic and horrible relationship to the next. Serissa’s mother believed in unconditional love, and Serissa could accept that, but she had no desire to emulate her.

Serissa was the more prudent of the two of us, so she was well aware of the power the three-word incantation held. She usually said it in a hushed and awkward tone, if she said it at all. But she was also the more rational of the two of us, often telling me, not as an insult, but as an observation, that I was sappy, sentimental, and a “chick.” She was a gender abolitionist. Her theory was that masculinity and femininity weren’t opposite ends of a spectrum, but two different continuums. Most people are high at one end and low at the other, independent of sexual orientation. I was apparently high at both ends while she was low at both. Her gender, she once said, was like wearing a sock for a glove: It didn’t feel right, but it worked, and it was better than nothing. She told me on a few occasions that the times she knew she loved me most were when she doubted I should even be with her at all, and worried that she was screwing me over. Once hysterically over the phone, and once sadly as I lay next to her.

“What are you getting out of this?” she asked in her most fatalistic voice. She was lying on her left side on the bed as she normally did, while I playfully spooned her.

“I love you, I love being with you, and I love having sex with you,” I chuckled.

“Why, why, and obviously.”

“I love you.”

“Dipshit.”

?

“I’ve never met such a gentle cat!” Losang said.

“My ex’s cat is even gentler. I’m glad she still has him.”

“I’m glad she does too.”

Play with Gordie for too long, and he might swipe at you with one of his paws, but he wasn’t about to subject Losang to such brutal treatment. When he tired of her attention, he got up and left, leaving us on the floor leaning against each other. When Losang and I were in close proximity, things tended to happen. I placed my hands on her back and made small circles with my thumbs, traveling down from her shoulders to her lower back. She tilted her head in my direction and gazed at me intently.

“You’re too nice, and I mean that in a good way!” Losang giggled. “You can do it harder than that, I can take it.”

She was echoing words she’d spoken the day before, only in her bedroom and some time after El Topo discovered the massacred village and before he tricked the fourth master into committing suicide. We said little to each other, but rubbed, nuzzled and kissed for the next half hour or so. My hands sometimes went into her shirt, down her back, or into her jeans.

It soon became time for her to leave, but just as when we said goodbye either on the phone or via IM, it took forever. We were standing somewhere at the bottom of the staircase and near the front door (we had to shut the door to keep the cat from trying to escape), though we’d found ourselves in each other’s arms on the way down. I was in the process of explaining something complicated to her, involving my ex and the memoir I’d published in The Bridge. I only said, “I’d explain more, but it’s in the memoir in that journal I gave you. I shouldn’t reveal anything.”

“Don’t. I’ll have to read it.”

“Heh. It’s just kind of odd how I talk about my writing and you haven’t really had the chance to read any.”

“I know, isn’t that retarded? I just like hearing you talk about your ideas and your writing. I like how you’re so smart and yet you don’t make me feel like an idiot for listening to you.”

“I wasn’t always this way. I didn’t have too many friends in middle or high school.”

“I like you even more today than I did yesterday.”

“Oh. Glad you do.”

“I’m glad I do too!”

And what did this all mean, I wondered? Would we end up together? I wanted to know, but I didn’t want the moment to end.

“And why is that three-word incantation coming back to me all of the sudden . . .” I said, fumbling my lips near her neck and face.

“No,” she said laughing tenderly, “don’t say that . . .”

A few kisses later, and she was on her way out. I had only to clean up, and re-arrange some things, and then I’d be on my way back home, through the red line, then boarding the train. I wasn’t at all troubled. I felt good. Even as I came back to my house late that night, past 11:00. My mother was already reclining in bed, but she wanted to talk to me anyway, and ask me how my day was and how things went with Losang (“I love how you have a close relationship with your mom,” Losang said to me, “It’s so sweet.”). She didn’t have me fettered to an iron ball, but it was difficult to keep too many secrets from my mother. As I entered her room, she told me that I seemed to have an aura of peace and calm about me.

“Well . . .” I said, searching for the right words, “Let’s just say it feels like a whole burden has been lifted from my shoulders.”

“Because you feel more confident around girls now?”

“Something like that.”

That was as far as I wanted to go. It wasn’t a lie, and my mother didn’t wish to intrude in on my privacies. She knew that I didn’t lie very well. Losang instinctively knew this too, though she said it had something to do with how readily I changed my facial expressions, even if she wasn’t sure what every expression meant at this point. I was excited, of course. She’d surprised me by actually being the person she said she’d be. I apparently didn’t disappoint her either, in any aspect.

But where were we going now? I had no idea, and I knew too well that nothing could sicken a heart like hope deferred, just as in Proverbs 13:12. “Hon, just don’t become attached,” Losang said in an IM less than a week ago. And how would I tell if I was attached or not? For that matter, was it possible to become attached to not being attached?

?

My parents made it an unspoken tradition to watch The Passion of the Christ nearly every Good Friday, but they decided to try for Saturday this year, since I got back late the night before, and Easter came early anyway. Nothing about this movie shocked me so much as the vociferous reactions it garnered. I’d known for many years that what Christ endured on the way to Golgotha was much worse than what I saw in the Bas-reliefs depicting the Stations of the Cross at my church, or in any other movie about Jesus. A year earlier, I’d received Serissa’s ultimatum, and was struggling to find another job and a way out of my parent’s house in order to live up to her expectations of me. Watching it then felt like I was watching my own passion, death, and rebirth.

I was born Holy Saturday of 1982. To date, my birthday has sometimes fallen on Good Friday, sometimes on Holy Saturday again, and sometimes a day or two after Easter, but it hasn’t fallen on Easter Sunday since 1977, and will not again until 2039. Clearly, I have a long ways to go. I was still talking with Losang, and I’d hoped to see her again that day. We’d agreed in advance for some time, but I had to leave soon that morning, and didn’t check any of my messages. There was one in particular I should have read: hey hey. happy birthday guy!!! i want to see you but i can’t do it today i am sorry i just need to talk and well i don’t know if i can about this today. i want you to be happy…can we get together on another day and talk, seriously??? ok well i will ttyl tashi delek and namaste

 

I saw her standing on the front porch of her house as I approached, looking uncertainly across the street.

“There you are,” she said. “I was wondering if you were going to come or not.”

She held out her arms as I headed toward the front steps.

“Come here!”

I was well on my way already.

“Closer!”

I threw my arms around her and kissed her lightly on the forehead.

“Did you get my message?” Losang asked.

“No, I didn’t have time to check.”

“Oh. Um . . . I just got up, so I’m going to shower now. Why don’t you, um, play on the computer or something?”

The computer was a laptop that looked like it was in the process of reformatting something, so I left it alone. I waited patiently in the living room for about an hour as Losang showered while playing the radio loudly. I ate the lunch I’d packed and a few chapters in my copy of Deus Irae. I also made note of some of the pictures hanging in the living room, hallway, and dining room, which seemed to show a younger Losang who wore dresses, styled her hair differently, and didn’t have any tattoos.

When Losang was out of the shower, I sat with her at the kitchen table.  She prepared her own food while talking to me, talking on the phone, replying to Instant Messages, and consulting her Tibetan-English dictionary, all at the same time. I was amused, but remained patient and continued reading. Eventually, I found myself sitting behind her, gently massaging her back and shoulders, running my hands across the tattoos on her upper arms, down to the bear paw on her right forearm, and finally reaching the blood donor bracelet around her wrist. At no point did she resist, but she did not reciprocate. Losang continued for some time, then led me onto the back porch, and I sat there with my left arm around her. When no one thought to catch her on the phone, she spoke to me.

“You know,” she said with a dreamy and enamored gaze, “I’ve been spending a lot of time with the other guy I’m seeing, and I’m really starting to like him a lot. He’s almost like a male version of me.”

Ah yes, the other guy. I didn’t want to even bring him up. My only strategy for dealing with him was to ignore him, but at this point, it was futile.

“I wasn’t going to bring that up . . .” I sighed.

“I don’t want you to think you can’t date other girls.”

The statement rang strangely in my ears. I didn’t know which implication was more bizarre: the notion that I would have been interested in dating anyone else, or that there were actually other girls who would want to date me. All other women bored me at this point, and I was certain there weren’t any I was disappointing. I was nearly speechless, but my arm was still around her. She continued.

“I don’t really think I believe in monogamy anymore, y’know? I don’t want to be involved in something serious. It’s like what Lama Thubten Yeshe said . . . ‘If people’s relationships start off extreme, how can they last?’”

“We, ah, we started off pretty extreme, didn’t we?”

She nodded sadly. I didn’t know which was considered more extreme at this point, in the world we live in: fucking on the first date, or desiring an exclusive relationship? Most people probably sorted this stuff out in high school, and now dated many people at once. Is that how it was done? Losang studied me with a mixture of concern and curiosity. She looked a little awed.

“Are you alright? I can’t tell. You’re so quiet . . . and so intense.”

“I . . . I don’t know.”

I knew this would not work for me. It had nothing to do with jealously or any pretense that I was on the moral high ground, only that I sought depth over breadth, and knew myself well enough to know how I loved. At this moment, there was only person in the world I wanted to love, consequences be damned, and she was sitting on the porch right next to me, telling me about how awesome someone else was. I gripped her tightly for a moment and looked away, feeling a burning sensation in the back of my eyes.

“I used to get attachment just like this when I was 25,” Losang said. “Oh, that’s right, you’re turning 26 today.”

She winced.

“Oh god!” she continued, “Someone did this to me a while back, and now I’m doing it. I really didn’t want to talk about this now. I wanted to talk to you about it in person, but not today. Drewy’s coming over in a while, and I’m going to have to look after Moose soon.”

Moose was the name of her neighbor’s pit bull puppy, which Losang insisted, she took better care of than his owner. Drewy, or so I will call him, was one of Losang’s friends. I heard a little about him, but we’d never met. So we soon got up off the back porch and headed out to the front hall. I saw a tall young man with glasses approaching us. He must have been in his early twenties. He came up the stairs, through the threshold, and into the hall.

“There he comes!” Losang said. “Drewy, this is my friend Dave.”

“Hi!” he said to me, and shook my hand. I said ‘hi’ back, but I was barely able to focus myself long enough to do so. I was taken a little aback by his appearance. My expression must have been grim and detached. Maybe stunned.

“Drewy, why don’t you give us a minute, OK? Why don’t you, um, play on the computer or something?”

I think the computer was off at this point, but Drewy took his cue and went into the back somewhere. Losang and I sat on the front porch instead, where she was to my right this time. She was nervously kicking the front steps, and chipping away layers of paint.

“You said I was what you wanted,” I said sadly.

“You are,” said Losang. “I mean you were . . . no, you are.”

Christianity is a religion in a rush. You could be saved or a damned in a moment’s decision, and find yourself in heaven or hell only a few minutes after your death. Serissa and I both preferred the version with Purgatory, but regardless, sin was still conquered in a half-day, and permanently.

“You’re going to have to choose . . .” I said.

In the Eastern religions, karma could take thousands of years to run its course and redeem itself, depending on what state you’re at. As an impermanent stage of a massive, ongoing process, what do the desires of your current incarnation truly matter? No need to rage against the inevitable and cause more suffering.

“I don’t want to choose,” said Losang. “Everything that’s happened is what’s supposed to have happened. I try to be all things to all people . . .”

“You’re juggling many things at once. Eventually, you’re going to have to drop something and disappoint someone.”

“Well if I had to choose, I suppose it would be him . . . no, no I don’t want to choose. I know, I’m probably screwing myself over either way. So I guess . . . the question is, what do you want?”

“I already told you,” I said, “I want you.”

“I know, but I meant what do you want out of this? Do you just want to be friends? Do you just want to wait and see what happens?”

Friendship seemed an odd proposal for me. At least now I knew the line I’d written in Half-Born about friendship being the means by which men were castrated without the use of sharp objects didn’t always apply, but I didn’t want a “friend” I also had sex with. That would have been too confusing. I also knew that if I were to spend time with her as a platonic friend, I probably wouldn’t be able to stop myself from fantasizing about heading upstairs with her and making love to her again, looking to the passenger’s seat in my car and seeing her there, inviting her to my house during the few weeks in July when my parents would be gone, to Bridgewater to see the unveiling of The Bridge volume 5 and perhaps introducing her to Tara, Dr. Walker, and anyone else who was remotely part of my social network. Maybe introduce her to my mom, too. I wondered if she would have had a different impression of Losang if she’d actually met her in person. I would proudly introduce her as if to say, “Look everyone, here’s my new girlfriend and I love her. I couldn’t be happier!” Of course, I wouldn’t say much of anything. And if I didn’t spend any time with her at all, regardless of the status of our relationship, I would miss her terribly. I honestly didn’t know which was worse.

“I don’t know if I could do either without some indication of where we’re headed. Otherwise, I’m stuck in that agonizing gray area, that limbo . . .”

“I can’t tell you where we’re headed,” Losang said, “I don’t even know what I’m going to be doing next week. I’m so not thinking that far ahead right now. I don’t want to be tied down to anything. Did you know that the anniversary to my break-up was just a few weeks ago—on the 1st? When I lost both my jobs, he said, ‘You’re not making any money, I don’t love you anymore.'”

I also knew what it felt like when the most important person in your world says something unspeakably cruel after you’ve lost your job. Come to think of it, we were both going through this at around the same time. Losang blurred in my vision, then her reflection ran down either side of my face.

“I’m . . . sorry that’s where he was coming from,” I said softly. “I’d never do that.”

“Wh—I know you wouldn’t,” she said.

“Remember what I said about cutting open one’s sternum to offer the heart out as if it were the body of Christ and all that? As if to say to the world, ‘Here! This is what I’m made of! See that I have no barriers! See the wounds that I carry and see that I’m still not afraid to love as if I’ve never been hurt!”

“Good,” she said. “You and all beings should be that way.”

“It’s yours if you want it, Losang. I said I equated myself with the Knight of Cups, didn’t I? Tara could have had a place at his side if she actually wanted it, and now you have a place there. Hell, Serissa might even still be there if she hadn’t broken up with me . . .”

“Why?” Losang asked. “She was treating you like shit.”

“The answer is so obvious I’m surprised you’d ask. Because I loved her.”

“I understand,” she said, “I still love Andy unconditionally, but I’m glad he’s not with me anymore. I don’t need his abuse.”

Now I was losing myself in my analogies, speaking of the Knight of Cups, and removing one’s own heart. I even went so far as to mention the Attraction Council, which I don’t think I’d mentioned before. It was the truth as I knew it, but all I succeeded in doing was obfuscating the matter more. I think my Brain blew a fuse. Or the Heart ripped a chord out from the back of his head and took over.

“ . . . and—and the Penis and the Brain are always yelling at each other, except the Penis keeps telling the Heart to stay out of everything until it’s a sure deal . . .”

Losang was laughing at first, then she stopped when she saw how serious I actually was.

“It’s never a sure deal,” she said softly.

From somewhere across the street, I could hear a dog barking.

“That’s Moose,” Losang said, “I’ve gotta take care of him today. I’m like that dog’s friggin’ mother, you have no idea.”

“Well, I’ll let you do what you need to, then.”

“I’m sorry. We’ll continue this conversation tonight. Are you going to be online?”

“Yeah, I should be. Did you get to read Half-Born yet?”

“No. I’ve been busy.”

“Well, when you get the chance, it might give you a little bit of insight as to where I’ve come from.”

“I will read it! Tonight!”

I knew that she intended to. I also knew that she wouldn’t, but it’s the thought that counts. I grabbed my jacket from the hanger. I wondered if Moose was barking at a crow.

“I’ve come a long way from where I was at the time it took place, but still.”

“I need to take care of that dog.”

“Right. I’ll be on my way.”

Losang glanced worriedly across the street. I glanced back at her as I walked away, but only once. I supposed I was free to be scourged and crucified, and she was free to immolate herself in protest of the situation in China. Whatever it would take for either of us to cope with the cruelties of this world. I continued toward Davis Square, vowing that the next time I came across anyone who said that men are afraid of commitment and just want sex, I would punch that person in the face, hard, and multiple times.

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David Mitchell welcomes your comments on “The Attraction Council” at barlowe2003[at]yahoo.com.

photo by Zyllan


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