April 5, 2011 § Leave a comment
“Fill the pit!” The mic dropped screaming kick kick and I floated. Hands were grass blowing waves licking and I tried to remember the words (they yelled them for me). A scuffle growled from the amps and as they lifted I swam for the floor. Grope up my shirt so I punched as Velcro ate his guitar and the screech poked through my plugs there it is! can’t miss my mark. “Electronic faucet I drink from the socket” wrapped the cord around my wrist.
“Pull the plug!” Sasha smirked as she walked on heads.
“Throw the switch!” They lofted me by my legs, made a wish, and pulled.
“Fuck the microphone…” Shirt over face upside-down.
“….YOU BITCH!” 8-track pounded, Caroline dived in with me, and I kissed that cute girl that had been looking at me all night asking for it – licking from pierced lip to ear, following the invisible chain. She smiled from underneath her smoky green hair and gave me the finger as they dragged me back to the stage.
“Where the fuck is Jo!” this gutterpunk yelled between punches, as I tore the duck tape from my cheeks. The mic was somewhere down my shirt so I fished for it.
“Jo’s not home right now.” I choked up on the nearest guitar.
“Can I take a message?” Caroline jumped up on his shoulders, jammed fingers in his ears, and leaned back. He jerked forward and she flipped over onto the stage, knocking over the water bottles. I gave her the guitar.
“Alright, enough with the sound check.” Sasha flew up towards the ceiling, grabbed the tire-swing, and hung herself by the knees.
“We’re Suspender. Prepare to die.”
All this time Velcro was laying down his patented Nagasaki-buzz/drone, while 8-track shifted from a bouncy box-car to a helicopter lopping off tree-tops. Caroline joined in with this thing she stole from a laxative commercial the night before, and I looked for a hole in the noise to rip through, but I couldn’t see it, not like Jo could.
This is the story of the week I took her place. Of a dream come true.
I’m tempted to start at the very beginning, when Intruder Alert! ruled and I was a medium-sized snot, dreaming of sticking my tongue up Frisbee. Of course, she wouldn’t have me – too busy with Jenny and fucking antizine (sorry, Friz, that’s how I felt then) – but that didn’t stop me from fantasizing big time. The first time I heard Joan was on an Intruder tape that Jenny sent me, I guess it was a bootleg of one of their shows on the coast, and I didn’t take it out of my walkthing for a month, drowning in the buzz and her voice from I don’t know where. She must have been only 15, but to me she was fucking Athena or something, running through the woods bow drawn shooting all the boy bands in their crotches and loving it. Sure, Intruder was half guy, but Jo made them shine, gave them her smell.
Anyway, so whenever the newest anti came out I would read it in the bathroom, Jo singing in my ears while Frisbee ranted at me, and I would lock the door so no one walked in with my hand between my legs, lost in afterschool extra-special daydreams of a little queer girl getting what she wanted and then some. I always came but they never did – so abstract, so far away – and the constant rubbing, like I was calling up my own personal genie, kept me sane but alienated me from the “real” world. My first wish was always to fuck them both, the second was to make them fall in love with me, and the third to have them fight for my attention, to the death. Of course, nothing ever came forth but an indescribable longing. That, and the realization that I was alone.
The first time I saw Jo was at an Intruder show when I was 14, and although I didn’t realize it then, that was also the first time I saw Sasha. Intruder wasn’t actually on a tour, they just happened to be back east for a few days getting into trouble. I had no idea that they were around, but it’s true that I was extra-hyper that weekend, almost going so far as to tell Patricia – my then best friend and partner in grime – that I had this monster-sized crush on her. But I regained my sanity and only asked her out to the Treehouse, because I wouldn’t dare go alone, especially on kinda-new band night. So we gave our hair Kool-Aid dye jobs and borrowed her father’s leather jackets (he was that way in the 60’s), tried our best to look rough and experienced, and took the bus to 3rd street. As soon as we got there I knew that something was up, because there were about 500 pre-punks roaming around outside, shitting in their pants in anticipation, breaking the bottles they swiped from home before they even got drunk. Lucky for me Phone was working the door that night, and when he waived us to the front of the line he slipped a note into my right butt pocket with one hand, tagging that night’s icon our cheeks with the other. It was a upside down “T”, kind of like one of those perpendicular signs in Geometry, and the deal was that if he let us in penny-minus he could mark us wherever he wanted. Plus, he was a really good artist, and the note made up for any temp-hate from face adjustments (it took us hours just to get that punker-than-thou-without-even-trying look). What did it say? Well, as me and Pat passed through the living room (where the girls hung) and the kitchen (guys and band members), finally taking up space by the tetherball pole, I gave a look and….
INTRUDER ALERT! YOU OWE ME BIG TIME! (in quick, felt-tip black on the back of the next week’s flier – Slow Cone was playing)
“Uh….Anna…isn’t that…” Over by the bowling pin sculpture of God….
“Is my spit fawcet running? Do I have a straight jacket?”
“We’re both going to die!”
“Not quite. Watch my shadow, I’m gonna attack….”
I gave her the pointy “stay” finger and started to circle the room. No wonder the pre-punks were restless, fucking Joan of Arc was getting ready to burn us all at the stake.
“Where are you sneaking off to?” Arm on my wrist, and I didn’t have to turn around to know I’d been robbed.
“I’m busy, Slinky……come back later.” There she was, past the Trouble Twins – I could almost taste her aura of sweat…
“Where’s my Eskimo Guy tape? I want to get it signed.” Did I mention why we call him that? Had this slinky hooked in one earlobe, and it stretched around the back of his peanutty shaved head to the other side. Worse than it sounds.
“Fuck, I ate it, O.K.? Let me go.” Jo! Don’t talk to that don’t-know-how-to-be! I’m coming…
“Man! When I loant it to ya I told ya that the deal was up when I said it was up. It’s up!” Plus, when he got mad his head bobbed up and down like those wobbly-top toy people.
“O.K. You got me. Go and talk to Pat, she’ll set you up.” Hated to do that, but I had to get away.
“Yeah, I’m a winner….” Bobbed in joy across the room, and I watched Pat start to freak. Gave her the open-fist “bathroom time” sign. She got the hint, and hopped in the girl closet before Slinky caught her.
“Pixie dust?” Some strange (yet cute) slurpette wagged a stick at me. I paused, weighed my options, and took a sly drag, all the while keeping an eye on my target. It was the green kind, and it was good.
“Thanks.” Yeah, she really was cute. One of those half-headed hair jobs, with the back missing and the front really long, so she could brush it back and barely reach her neck.
“There’s a lot more where that came from.” She must have been about 14, and you could tell that she was smooth yet firm just by glancing at her shoulders, that peaked out past her official Circle X uniform, a short-sleeved, polyester, red shirt with the Intruder Alert! logo stenciled on her right breast, “Hack” stitched in cursive on the left. Her shoes were plastic, translucent hi-tops with purple yarn laces, so you could tell she was going sockless. It looked like she had overalls on, but her shirt was buttoned, concealing the straps. Absolutely adorable.
“Maybe we’re coming from the same place…” Always wanted to say that.
“Come here.” She patted the spray-painted cement floor next to her.
“I will. But I have to do something real quick.” Gave her that “I think I really want you” hand-waive/smile combo, and I fully intended to follow through. She smirked, and went back to her Pixie stick.
So. Gathered myself, stepped over who I soon determined to be Circle X – it seemed that he had the flu or something, because he kept throwing up but it didn’t stink that much. Besides, he always drank after the shows, never before – in that way he was terribly straight edge. Yeah, right. As I hopped over his fetal-ball – more like a bunch of lint because he had a nasty brown wool sweater on – the lights suddenly dimmed and Masking Tape took the stage. Sure, Susanna was a real babe, with a voice like a baby bird, but I wasn’t about to fixate on a band I saw every week when Joan was around. She was about 10 feet away, over by the equipment corner, talking to Caroline about their set I guess, when out of nowhere 50 pre-punks summoned a hurricane, a smuggled in boom-box playing Flexidick at the eye of their storm. Unfortunately I was sucked into the body-winds before I could prepare my elbows and fists, and then it was breast-thigh-drumstick, everyone trying to bucket the good pieces. Of course, no one but Pat noticed my torment – the girls too busy tagging the walls, the guys too busy watching. And she wasn’t about to do anything direct, because they would have torn her to pieces and used her teeth as guitar picks. So when I swung around her way I gave her the locked-hands-overhead “tetherball chain!” yell, and she shimmied up the pole, unhooked my salvation, and approached the pseudo-pit close enough that she could throw it to me as I spun uncontrollably past, when some jerk had his face up my ass. Well, as soon as I wrapped my wrist with power, I turned to the nearest offender – Ronald, the guy who was fired from Circle X because he kept stealing quarters from the videogames and using them to order pizzas from nasty-ass Peppies’ of all places – gave him 3 seconds to desist, and then made him a steel necklace, sized personally for a snug fit. Choking, he put me down long enough for me to get a good whack at the radio, killing Tom’s whiny voice before I really got pissed off. At this point the storm started to die down a bit, and everyone soon realized that I was not only holding a chain, but on the average was 2 inches taller than them. All it took was a few cautionary swings for the junior high scabs to scamper off, leaving a hand-picked bunch of nothings that I didn’t even consider giving my attention to. Draped the chain around the back of my neck, gave Pat the “Fuck yeah!” finger, and headed over to Jo.
“Uh, can someone remove their radio from the floor?” That was Not Ian, the unofficial announcer-guy that took the stage before each set. He had on a Potato Power shirt, the light blue one with the stapler. “And has anyone seen Isabel?”
“Who?” That was half the audience, or all the out-of-towners – take your pick.
“You know, Masking Tape’s drummer?” We called him Not Ian because one time, at this particularly horrible show, just after he made his stupid announcements, the lead singer for the next band took the mic and said “Who was that boring jerk?”, to which the drummer replied “I don’t know, but he’s sure not Ian.” To this day no one knows who Ian is.
“Never mind.” She was hanging out by the door. Did I mention that she and Phone were going out then? Or that he was cheating behind her back left and right? The night she found out is one I’ll never forget – but I’ll save that story for another time.
Anyway. Not Ian awkwardly jumped off the stage and I was this close to Jo when Masking Tape started to play – Isabel dived behind her drum set just in time. Caroline took the opportunity to whisper something in Jo’s ear, take her by the hand, and drag her out to the back porch. Shit.
I wasn’t about to go out there, because that was the de-facto dressing room/ rehearsal space/ kickball field. So I turned around and started back to Pat, when I saw that she was busy with Isaac, the boy that she had the hots for since 5th grade. I hated to see her look at him that way instead of me, but I wasn’t about to get in the way of her happiness. Besides, if you went for boys he was the cutest one around, with chin-length brown hair, the best band-T’s you could think of, and a sly way of smiling and frowning at the same time that drove everyone wild. Everyone, that is, except me, and as I was scanning the room, I suddenly remembered the Pixie stick girl. She wasn’t in her previous spot – over by the ice chest, which had “One Handful Please” written on it – and just before I got totally bummed there was a tap on my shoulder. It was her.
“I hate Flexidick too.” She slid the chain from around my neck, and then held out her hand. “Come with me.” I took it, and it was very warm, yet harder than it looked.”What’s your name?” I tried to be cool about it, but my glow was obvious.
“All in due time. This way.” I was too focused on her to realize that she was leading me out to the back porch. I started to tense up.
“Don’t worry.” She squeezed my hand. “I just want you to meet someone.”
We passed by Ariel – who always worked the back, was as tall as I am, and had arms to die for – and it took a second for my eyes to adjust to the bright light above the steps. At the foot, concentrating on their guitars, were Jo and Caroline. Over by the garbage can was 69rpm, practicing some riffs because he wasn’t about to set up before the show only to tear down again. Pixie (I’ll call her that for brevity’s sake) yanked my arm and dragged me down the stairs. Then, she tapped Jo on the shoulder, and I just about died.
“Oh, hey. You having fun?” Jo smiled at the two of us. “Meet someone cool?”
“God, Joan. Don’t even start.” She turned to me, giving a little wink. “This is my friend, Annabelle Spencer. She knows Frisbee.”
I stood there and grinned like a stupid fuck, because I was totally shocked. How did Pixie know my name, and Frisbee for that matter?
“Is that right? Sit down, girl. Don’t be shy.” I wasn’t about to resist a direct order, especially coming for Jo. So I sat behind Caroline, and Pixie snuggled up to Jo, giving her a neck massage.
“So. Are you from around here?” That was Caroline, the other real half of Intruder. She’s around 5′ 9″ now, but then she was an inch or two shorter (18 but still growing, I guess). Her hair was completely shaved off, except for a long, purple stripe about an inch in width, which split her between the eyes. She had on a floral dress that went up to her knees.
“…yeah.” I couldn’t speak. It was like a dream.
“Actually, Annabelle’s a real fan of Intruder Alert!” Pixie tapped her foot against mine; I could see that her toes were painted Circle X red. I had to say something.
“Yeah. Frisbee gave me your first tape, and ever since then I’ve been totally hooked. You are so amazing!” God, I sounded like a total sponge.
“What’s your favorite song?” Caroline again. Jo whispered something to Pixie, and both were smiling. Pixie handed her the chain.
“‘Loop’ is really cool, but ‘Half Open Window’ is awesome.”
“You are a real fan. Everyone seems to hate the B to ‘Usual'”
“No way! I mean…” Pixie squeezed Jo on the neck, smiled, and got up to leave. “…I mean it’s a really good song.” I had no idea what was going on, but I knew that an opportunity like this only happened once, and I wasn’t about to waste it.
“Annabelle….” Jo frowned. “God, that name is too long for me. Help me out Caroline. She needs a new name.”
“I don’t know. I kinda like Annabelle.” Caroline smiled at me. “It has an old-world charm.” At that point 69rpm started up this revolutionary drum-march thing, and everyone started to crack up.
“How about Oceana?” He stopped drumming for a second. I could barely see him in the dark, but it looked like he had a harmonica hanging around his neck. “I always thought that was a cool name.”
“No, no. All she needs is a good contraction, something that shows her essence…”
“I don’t know, Caroline. Everyone calls me that now.”
“I got it.” Jo put down her guitar, and stood up. Out of the cone of light, her face was half in shadow, and her brown hair – pulled back – dissolved into the night. Her white, pin-striped shirt and really loud tie took on an orange hue, and her dark, ankle-length skirt shifted in the wind. “A-Bell.”
Everyone was silent. Even 69rpm stopped with the garbage. I could hear Masking Tape play through the door; Susanna was just starting “Drinking Utensils,” the part when she sits down on her knees, closes her eyes, and whispers “I need a glass/so I can break it.” There was no doubt in my mind that it was perfect.
“Cool?” I smiled.
“O.K. then. A-Bell, come with me. Time for stage two.” Jo reached towards me, and I gladly took her hand. As she lifted me from the stairs, I could feel the callous on her fingers, I could sense the songs that flowed out of them continuously. We walked around the Treehouse to the left, towards the dirt parking lot and the tall, wide trees beyond. She swung the chain slightly as we walked; it seemed to clank in time with 69’s drumming, slowly fading in the distance.
“My cousin was telling me how impressed she was with you.”
I didn’t know what to say, so I didn’t say it. I just stared at her tie – yellow, with green turtles crawling upwards.
“She’s the mysterious type. Never telling you what she thinks.” She kicked a rock. “Or knows.”
“I’ve just met her, yet….” I looked up at the stars, coming out past the clouds.
“I know. She has that effect on people.” She stopped. “Far enough. Now listen.”
And I did. Of course, all of the quotes that I’ve included so far are semi-manufactured, because I didn’t have a tape recorder with me or anything. What’s been said was said, more or less. But when we stopped in the back of the parking lot – right by Slinky’s station wagon, which still had windows at that time – and Jo looked me straight in the eye, I can never, will never, forget what she said to me:
“Frisbee wanted us to find you. She’s worried.”
I was confused. Sure, I knew Laura pretty well, having written to her since antizine 1, but we had never met, and I hadn’t told her that much about my problems.
“I don’t understand.”
Jo frowned, and then turned towards the Treehouse. The air pulsated slightly with Susanna’s voice. I could tell she was rolling on the stage about then. “It’s not a mistake that we’re here tonight. It’s not a mistake that you met my cousin.” She closed her eyes for a second, and then put her hand on my shoulder and opened them. “You’re so special, A-Bell. You can’t possibly know how much.”
I was about to die. Jo was saying all of this wonderful stuff, and she couldn’t possibly mean it. She didn’t even know me. But still….
“O.K. What’s going on!” I shook her hand off.
“Fair enough. We’ll talk.” She smiled. “We need to go to our van, though. I need to show you something.”
Part of me felt like I was going to get molested or jumped or something, but the other – A-Bell, my newly named essence – knew that it was right. So we went, and talked for about an hour. I can’t discuss the conversation, but sufficed to say that I finally understood what my purpose in life was. I understood my attraction to Frisbee and Joan, and I understood that Sasha was the one for me.
You see, Pixie was Sasha, only I didn’t find that out until later that year, when she started working with Joan in Jumpster, and by then she had changed so much that I almost didn’t recognize her. Of course, all it took was a second of hand-holding to fix that. I could never forget her warmth.
So anyway, when I went back into the Treehouse that night, desperately looking for her, all that was left was that Pixie stick, now empty, duck taped to the side of the ice chest, along with a note. It read:
Sorry about the runaround, but I promised Frisbee that I’d get you in contact with Jo. If you’re reading this then I assume you forgive me. At first, I was just playing along with the plan, but… I don’t know how to say this. It’s strange. I really do feel something for you, something that I’ve never really felt before. I need to think about it.
I know we’ll meet again, sooner than you imagine. Please don’t forget me, or this night. Take care of yourself.
Your Secret Admirer
As Intruder started to take the stage (the pre-punks tearing themselves apart in anticipation), and as Pat snuggled up to Issac in the living room – under the painting Phone did for the Treehouse-warming, “Yard Stick Vs. Tape Measure” – I slumped down by the ice chest, held the note to my heart, and cried. Cried while Jo sang “Half Open Window” just for me, cried while Caroline, 69rpm, and even Circle X (who recovered in time for the set, but didn’t bother to take off the sweater) made the most beautiful music in the world. I didn’t stop crying until well after the show was over, after I had said goodbye to Jo and made plans for our next meeting. Pat went home with Issac, Susanna biked along side Phone, and little male pre-punks snagged unlucky girls for their adolescent, temporary bliss. I took the bus, and the clouds were now far away – I could see some constellations that I recognized through the window. I didn’t want to cry under those stars, the same ones that shine upon us all at our respective births and deaths, so I wiped my face on Pat’s father’s jacket, made the chain into an quick belt, and prepared myself for the big mess.
Home was the big mess, of course. “What the fuck were you doing out so late?” That’s my dad. “Weren’t you supposed to be at Patricia’s house?” Mom. “How was the show? Any cute boys?” Mary, my “sister”. I was all cried out, so I just remained silent until the questions subsided, went up to my room, and put on my tape of the first Intruder show. It was loud, and I had headphones on, but I fell asleep pretty quickly.
I had a strange dream, one that I made sure to write down the next morning. Sasha, Frisbee and Joan were in it, along with a number of other women that I didn’t recognize, and everyone was older – in their mid-to-late twenties, I guess. Anyway, we were all at this show, some group we didn’t know was playing, and suddenly everyone in the band disappeared. Jo jumped on stage first and grabbed the guitar, and then Frisbee and Sasha followed. I hesitated a bit, but all the rest of the women pushed me onto the stage. Then someone helped a little girl up to join us, and she ran to Frisbee, who raised her into a hug and kiss. She put her down, and then the little girl grew older really quickly. Frisbee ran off the stage, yelling about something, and then there was a tremendous explosion. The only person missing, though, was Frisbee – all of the other women were still in the audience. Then, Sasha started to draw strange markings on herself, which reminded me of what Phone did at the door to the Treehouse. Soon she took off her clothes, covered her whole body with shapes and symbols, and then gave me a pen, telling me to do the same. I tried, but the marks kept disappearing right after I made them. I told Sasha this, but she just smiled. The little girl was now a full woman, and she started to play the drums, so Jo followed her lead. Then, Sasha started to touch the markings on her body, and each spot produced a different sound. I tried to touch myself, but nothing happened. So I walked over to Sasha, and asked her to show me how it worked. She put my hand against her face, and then I heard the most beautiful noise in the world. It was so wonderful that I couldn’t tolerate hearing it, so I pulled away and immediately woke up. My walkthing, which had auto-reverse, was still playing the tape from the night before. And the upside down “T” was transferred to my pillow.
Ever since that day I studied that tape, hoping that the perfect noise was somehow included within it, and just happened to enter my dream. I haven’t found it yet, but when I touch Sasha’s face I get the same feeling, that this-close-to-exploding mass of wonderfulness. Fuck, I even get it when I look at her, like when I was playing with Suspender that night, when Jo was off recording another one of her secret projects.
During our first encore, when John and Frisbee finally showed up (they said they got lost coming to the club, but I knew better – ask her to tell you the story), Sasha had migrated to the front of the stage, staring at me with those knowing eyes of hers, the ones that look straight into your brain and heart and caress them. Well, I was sweating up a storm, and the crowd was not even close to being tired, so I made a call and Caroline seconded it. Fortunately, 8-Track and Velcro were versed enough to know what I was going after, so once we regrouped and dug back in our brains to 1986, I took the mike off the stand, and gave Frisbee the secret sign, the only one I can’t discuss.
“This is a song that most of you don’t know, but it’s really dear to my heart.”
“Get on with it, you fuck!” Yeah, it was the “Where the fuck is Jo!” guy.
“It’s called “Drinking Utensils”, and fuck you if you don’t like it. It’s not for you anyway.” 8-Track started us off slowly, as Caroline and Velcro stood back and watched.
Staring at Sasha, I slowly dropped to my knees.
And I sang.
April 5, 2011 § Leave a comment
I died at 12.
Passed out behind a dumpster, my last breath took in urine, spit and stale beer, as wrists went red fingers red eyes red….
This is the part where you retrace your steps, looking for comfort just now lost. Fuck that. When I was 12, alone and cold on the streets, I wanted to die and all the fast food bathrooms were locked. So I cried around a corner, found rusty nail in board, and tore and tore until the chill was universal.
Never attempt suicide within 100 feet of a phone booth. Passing bums like to call 911, feel that it’s their duty to save poor, innocent girls that know the fuck what they’re doing, that don’t want Clear! and you a toaster thrown in the shower, dancing in and out of the white.
I remember the white. I belonged there. Not in the hospital with endless history tests and psychologists that vacuum up your secret shit. “We’re here to help you, Jennifer. You can trust us.”
They burned my clothes – too dirty to save. Gave my junk back in a ziploc, minus the $17.23 and my last will and testament. “To the world and everyone in it: Fuck You!” Now known as exhibit one in the neverending files of Thomason.
Thomason Memorial Hospital is a quaint little cottage near the coast, with triple barbed-wired fences and janitors that grab your ass while you sleep. It probably looks like a cement pretzel from the air, scattered salt representing the patients combing the halls for consistent realities. The color scheme was stolen from an ice-cream place, and instead of 54 flavors there were bottomless bulk-bins of anti-depressants and activity-supressors, in designer colors. They even give you those cute joke cups with your medication – “What’s black and white and red all over?”
Me, the very first night there, in restraints after trying to bite my doctor’s ear off. He looked like a Circle X grunt in drag, all nametags and “How can I help you?”. Fingered his head to my lips and whispered-licked a Fuck You before bearing teeth. I laughed myself silly as the cameras behind mirrors recorded his screams – I guess you had to be there.
But you weren’t. You didn’t die at 12, weren’t a ward of the state that needed to be under 24 hour supervision, and as sure as fuck don’t know what it’s like to be crazy.
I know.There’s this man I met on Day 3 over orange juice and graham crackers; he had a dark gray beard and knew the first 6 pages of the phone book by heart. Not the numbers and names – the instructions. As a treat for not yelling all morning, they let me go down the ramp into the day room, and I bummed a cigarette off of him as we watched TV. “Did you know,” Eric dragged, crumbing his pajama top brown, “that in 1996 the world will cease to be?” No shit, and he was “there’ll be fire and angry angels and dead folk come alive, and I’ll be in here watching it on TV.” I smiled through the stimulants and adjusted my 32 cent blue booties.
Crazy fuck, the world’s ending in the year 2000. Here’s how I know:
Day 27, according to the marking pen on my bedside table, I was fucking around with Quarter, showing him this cool pool shot I’d learned (you play a lot of pool when you’re insane) and this girl walked right up to me. In my face, smiling.
“Come with me.” Grabbed my hand, I dropped the cue (the green ball went in).
So we walked into the hallway – past the patients with cups asking passers by for spare pills – and she’s wearing hospital junk, white with light blue polka-flowers, that’s about to fall to the floor. Hair is balloon blue, half-on, half-off, and her bare feet covered with multi-colored marking pen stripes and circles. The ancient lady who spat in my breakfast on Day 4 laughed as we passed (sitting in her chair, tearing the ads out of old National Geographics).
“Where are we going?” Approaching the emergency exits, always a good question to ask.
“Fine.” Stopped by the vending machines. The MouthSavors were gone, the cola button blinking red. “Hey. I’m Laura. We’re leaving now.” Rushed for the door, they whooshed open with a department store alarm – when you just couldn’t rip the plastic tags off – and I just stood there staring at her, at the candy choices. What the fuck just happened?
And she hovered there, silhouetted in the sun passing through the iron gates beyond, and held out her hand to me. I wanted to hug her, to laugh at her feet, to give her some pants and forget about my pain, my hospital bracelet. She was like a neon cow-girl doing a rope trick, and if she was a soda she would have extra caffeine and twice the calories of the leading brand. My legs started to move me towards, but my left hand was latched to a pull knob for salted peanuts. Smiled as wide as a stop sign, stuck out her tongue, and held her hands high in the air as the nurses came, both middle fingers raised to attention. They knocked me down to the ground face first, and dragged Laura off kicking and screaming to the quiet room, her waving blue smearing sleeves.
I thought I was good. It took 7 hours for her to shut up, which I knew for certain because I was in the room next door, on “escape watch”. The first hour was the easiest to handle, with the occasional groan between the slaps and constant crying, and the nurses the only ones yelling, trying to “talk some sense into her.” Soon someone said fuck that and they opened the drug drawers. Hour two had her literally all over the walls, body-slamming the padding while not saying a word. I hid in the far corner, shaking under the rolled-up floor mat – the only shadow available. It was pointless to cry so I gnawed at my wrists until they reddened. Hour three, after I pissed in the corner since they wouldn’t let me out to toilet, she started to talk, and I couldn’t help but listen. First, she got inventive and started to yell out a blow by blow description of her stripping off pajamas. “I’m such a hot teenage girl, don’t you want to peek in the window at me?” Doctors do that, peek in with their clipboards, and I can only guess what they saw that day. “I’m naked here! Come on in and get some!” It was quite embarrassing and also rather exciting, because she’s cute to the point of exasperation. Finally, she gave a humongous “fuck this shit” and started at the walls again.
Hour four was when I started to pound back, and she noticed. “Hey, is that you?” and I yelled my loudest yes, all the while bracing for the inevitable doctor rush, needles dripping. “Cool.” She lowered her voice some. “Can you still hear me?” “Yeah.” “Still” “Yeah” “Still” and she was only yelling half as loud, but it almost seemed intimate – communicating by brute force through cement and rubber. I told her my name, and she said she already knew, that and a whole lot of other things. Hour five was when she told me about her life and her dreams, and hour six was when I told her mine. Sure, the doctors were recording every last word, but to them it was one big delusion, more stuff to jerk off with onto their PDRs. So when hour 7 came along, and Laura told me about the end of the world, they had proof that she was crazy but I knew better.
She was the one. My way out.
I was born at 12.
Laura was my mother, my savior, my secret lover that cradled me back to life. She had no idea, of course. Just her own problems to deal with.
On Day 4 I met Douglas – Quarter, I called him, because he always asked me for one – and the first time we spoke he just had to call his girlfriend on the outs. “She’s gotta be worried sick, and they won’t let her visit.” For some reason I laughed hysterically when he said this, and turned back to the industrial strength ashtray – it had a metal mouth that ate the butts, scratching wrists if you reached in too far. I traded bearded Eric my crackers for cigarettes – little did he know that I swiped a box off of the serving cart.
No, it wasn’t that funny. But when every window has bars, and there’s twitching people behind the couches, entertainment comes from the oddest places. I guess Quarter understood, because he eventually forgave me. We became TV room buddies, and soon enough he forgot about his girl and made his move. Yeah, it was still Day 4 when during the 6 0’Clock news I found his hand on my thigh. Now the rules were strictly NO CONTACT around those parts, but the last touch that I had that was anywhere close to loving was when I held my knees under overpasses, trying not to crack. So I let him touch, I let him want me, and even shielded him from the lazy guard sleeping on the bad side of the triple-tagged plexiglass, so he could have his way in peace. He didn’t do much, actually, just held there and whispered about the tracks on his arms, and the 3AM bathroom mirror shadow-self he couldn’t stand. I understood, and as soon as I held his hand back someone noticed, and kept us the hell away from one another.
Separation breeds desire, and on Day 5 I found myself kissing him behind the snack machine, where the cameras couldn’t reach. He wasn’t particularly kind, or clear about the mess he was in, but he held me and gave me his warmth. I was the one who grabbed him this time, I was the dead girl that needed someone to love. Beside the electric potato chip cabinet, he did just fine.
Day 6 over lunch he whispered in my ear that he wanted to fuck me, but all I heard was that he adored me and so I smiled over the mini milk cartons – 3 for me, 2 for him. The plan was simple – strike when the night shift started to yawn, and the juice needed refilling. So I straightened up my thrift store summer dress – the one Illyana herself picked out for me, the bitch – and waited in the TV room for him to come. The late night movie was about a war, and lots of men were dying horrible deaths – badly scripted, that is, with atrocious film editing. Even then I was the consummate artiste, always looking for the aesthetic in the miasmic. So when the wrong side won and the flags were hoisted, Quarter snuck on in and sat on the couch beside me. He had brought a blanket – it was cold, so it didn’t look that suspicious. Stared into my eyes as he reached up my legs, and as he drew close all I felt was hate. I hated my body, wanted him to take it away from me and rip it to shreds, and he did the best he could under the circumstances. Under the pink wooly blankets he licked my face and reached inside of me, and all I thought about was the war, about what side I was on. For a split second I was on his side, and grabbed for him despite myself, only to have florescents shine in my face and Bob, the guard with the yo yo, threw Quarter to the floor.
They called it attempted rape cause I wouldn’t stop crying and yelling. I was pissed off because he didn’t get to finish the job, because I wanted so desperately to have more excuses to hate myself. A suicidal run-away slut seemed a lot better then just a suicidal run-away. Of course, Illyana did her best to try to convince me otherwise.
Day 7 had her fawning all over me, promising to “make things right.” She saw to it that Quarter was put under lock and key, until I confided in her about what really happened. Then she went big sister and told me all about her first time (it wasn’t my first) and how horrible it was (mine was wonderful) and that after she had talked it out it all became better, somehow or another – she wasn’t too specific. I nodded as we couched in her office, and as we chatted I swiped a stray letter opener and stuck it down my sock. Parting on a high note, she gave me a warm hug and told me that my doctor said it would be O.K. for me to go to group tomorrow. Reminded me of a window-display dummy girl, stiff and happy with nothing to say except buy the crap that covers me, that hides my plastic soul. Gave her an elation-face that reflected back from her glasses, went straight to the bathroom, and cut my throat over the sink. The blood didn’t come at first because the blade was dull, but once it did I gasped and wallowed in the pain. Reflected back was a paper doll with her head half-snipped off, everything colored all out of the lines. I started to snicker-cough but my legs gave out and I slumped down next to the hamper, still warm and damp from the last shower. My eyes were filled with the white, as I balled myself up on the dirty red cement, and everything would have been perfect if Clara didn’t walk in just then. Clara the towel freak, Clara the screamer.
Code Red. Stretcher. Ambulance. Those machines that beep while they breathe for you. I was all set up on Day 8, and “fortunately” for me the wound was fairly superficial. Illyana came all the way to visit, with flowers even, and we cried together in intensive care. On Day 9 she snuck in some chocolate and cigarettes, along with the news that she had finally found my mother, and that she was coming right this instant to see me. When she left for her shift at Thomason, I tried to strangle myself with the IV tube, but ended up knocking the stand and everything over. There was a lone dust bunny under the bed.
Day 10 brought dear old Mom from dear old home to sit over in the corner, by the window, crying as the cars left the parking lot. “Why are you doing this to yourself?” All I could do was picture her on the floor, broken bottle in hand, throwing up onto the phone. I was 5, and terrified. I was 8, and confused. I was 12, and the bags were packed, and her wallet empty. “Please, come back with me.”
Day 11 I told Illyana about my mother. I begged her to send me back to Thomason, to keep her the fuck away from me. She kissed my cheeks and made the arrangements – I got the ball and chain, and there were no visitation rights. My mother was too crushed to fight for me, and she went back to her liquid hell forever broken. She died 11 days later – car crash, only she was the drunk driver.
Day 12 and the scab was beautiful. I was allowed one supervised trip to the vending machine, and I got some well-needed Grape Flavumm. Illyana brought supermarket tabloids and I wrote the first page of antizine. “Hate everything, to make room for love.” Life was a third-floor, bubble-gummed hell.
Good girls get what they want. I, being black to the core, was given a break on Day 13 and got to go back to the quiet room anyway. “We just need to watch you,” Illyana said, “You’ll be out soon enough.” So I sat.
You cannot understand. Locked door, locked mind, locked heart.
Hiccupping for air through tears and the crack between me and my mailbox-blue floor mat fort, I finally had proof that I was worthless. Broken. Crazy.
No amount of sticky red was going to stop the pain, and the only certainty was the way my face lay against the cool, hard, cement floor. I wanted to become that floor, to stretch long and wide and thin across the earth and be spat and walked and shit upon. I wanted to hug the world, to forever look up at the sky with misplaced wonder. Under the flickering lights, I finally understood why they called it the quiet room, when no one who went there ever shut up. They wanted you to yell at yourself, scream silent hatred until it hurts. So I did, and by the time Illyana came for me I had gotten pretty good at it.
Laura was way better, mind you. She made the quite room speak.
Day 17 and I was allowed to be in the same room as Quarter again. It was my 3rd group, and all the crazy kids were in full force. You would think that drugs and shit wouldn’t do that much to you in the end, but there in front of me were a dozen stories to the contrary. Yeah, I was the only pure death-junkie, but everyone shared the same basic illness. Life.
“My name’s Douglas. I don’t know why I’m here.” He was over by the kitchen door, slowly ripping up his yellow card. Definite no no, it was our passport to success, signed 20 times daily and more on weekends. Good for pizza and a handshake – I burned mine the day before.
“Yes you do. Be honest with yourself, with us.” No, not Illyana. Big Bill the magnificent, at your service.
“I said I don’t know. I should be in juvie, not some nut house.” He’d cut half his hair off yesterday with safety scissors, and now he looked as fuck as punk.
“Call it what it is. A psychiatric hospital…” Bill reminded me of an old sofa. Big and smelly, and way too soft where it counted.
“And we’re the patients. We’re sick.” That was me, glaring at Illyana. She was wearing a fuzzy sweater that matched the carpet perfectly – lint prone, scratchy and ugly. I’ve never known another woman as beautifully scary.
“Jennifer, you don’t have to be so negative.” Ah, the wisdom of Bill.
“I’m sick. I’m always sick.” Towel – Clara, that is, obsessing as usual. She constantly brushed her back-length, jet-black hair. I would die for her hair, so supple-shiny. In the very first group I was in, when Bill made her put away her comb, she convinced us all that dirt was a communicable disease. She could feel the filth dripping down the back of her head, and the itching wouldn’t stop unless she combed it. Eventually he gave in.
“None of you are sick. You just need help.” Finally my guardian angel. She smiled at me but I just looked out the window, counting the fence holes. Way too many.
“How can you help me?” Doug was this close to running; his forehead screamed it. I wanted to fly across the room, take his hand, and meet the stairs with him. But I just sat and thought about the carpet, until Arnold spoke up.
“They can’t. We can.” Obviously this wasn’t hospital propaganda, so I listened.
“You’re right. That’s what group is for.”
“I would tell you what group is for, but I don’t want to get off of checks. Sufficed to say that I sure as hell don’t deserve to be here. None of us do.” He was burning a hole in the wall with his eyes, his voice. “You can’t possibly understand what it’s like to be in our shoes, so you have no way of helping us.” His forehead was lickable, like a chocolate ice cream cone. “The only help Doug or anyone else is going to get will either come from me, or the crazy ass people on the unit. Better me than them.”
Everyone stared. Illyana started to say something stupid yet supportive, but then Big Bill gathered himself and quickly changed the tone.
So we talked about our feelings. About what “color” we were (I was gray, always gray…), and about all the ways we fucked up things. I just wanted to get out of there and smoke, and as soon as the meeting ended Arnold ended up joining me by the benches.
“Hey. Jenny, right?”
“Yeah.” I smiled. “I liked what you said up there.”
“Fuck it. We all say the same thing to ourselves before going to sleep.” He looked up at the clouds overhead, and the sea gulls far below, but still beyond our reach.
“How’d you get here, anyway?”
“Checked myself in. I’ll tell you about it, sometime.” Threw and shoed the fire out, and started to walk away. “But right now I’ve got an appointment. See ya around.”
He walked over the grass, past the door, and picked up the basketball lying by the fence. Disappeared around the records building, and as Illyana and Bill huddled us baby chicks back in line, his bounce, bounce, bounce, gave me a peculiar sense of hope.
Hope that Laura made shine brighter than the sun.
Day 28 I fell in love.
It was breakfast, and things were basically back to normal (except for double meds due to the day before). I had my rubbery oatmeal with extra salt, my 3 milks and 2 bananas, and Laura was led in by Illyana and pushed through the food line, obviously out of it. She had the overly medicated look well beyond any street-junkie, with lock step lock jaw nothingness, and I just wanted to cry. Pajamas were soiled and sagging, her hair leaking blue all over her cheeks, and I knew that as soon as she filled her red tray, she would be back to the quiet room. So would I, if I tried to talk to her.
As she approached the end, I took one of my half-empty milks and elbow-knocked it onto the floor. “Shit! Hey Steve, I need another milk. O.K.?” He nodded over his morning newspaper, and so I walked over to Laura, who conveniently was by the drinks suspended in ice. Said hi to Illyana, took my 2% and a napkin, and wiped off Laura’s face. She smiled slightly, and secretly placed something in my hand as I went back to my table. Satisfied that she did her daily duty, Illyana promptly ushered her charge back to lock up, and I bused my stuff as quickly as I could. Meeting was in a half an hour, so that gave me time to contemplate my gift in peace.It was a crayoned note, green upon a brown paper towel. In the bathroom, as the other girls took a shower or misapplied makeup, I read through my tears:
Did you hear me last night? I was screaming for you during the shadow watch but all that came was 3 men and something too sleepy to fight. But I kept a crayon from the day before, won’t mention where I hid it, and I’m writing this to you (over) cause we’re getting out of here girl, in exactly 40 days we’ll walk right out the front door and be together forever. We’ll talk on Sunday.
This was all wrong, all right, all mixed up with no where to go. I didn’t want to start swimming in her fantasy, in her reality, but in the steamy hiss I contemplated flushing the evidence, and ended up treasuring it always. She was right, you see, always was and always will be, and every time I walked passed the quiet room window, trying to sneak a peak at her, she would be staring right back at me, smiling.
Day 29 was activity time, with modeling clay and shrinky dinks (I made the first antizine logo, and gave it to Quarter). I got to vacuum the psycho kids club house, and Arnold got a whole extra hour of free throws because he knew how to kiss up. After dinner there was a PG-13 movie, and Doug tried to snuggle up to me during the over-sexualized chase scene, but Clara snitched and stray hands were lead back downstairs to the unit. I went to sleep feeling at home for once, and if I had a gun I would have shot myself right then and there. All that was available was my locker key, so I used that to fuck up my ankles (the cleaning crew had to give me new linens daily).
Sunday was Day 30, and I woke up with the unnatural urge to peek in Towel’s room, which was across the hallway. Everyone avoided that place and for good reason, because the floors were always strewn with wet wash cloths and extra hospital linen, which she used to buttress her bed from the evil, unclean spirits. She was afraid of something far more serious than filth, but that’s the way it manifested itself.
Anyway, as I looked in that morning, holding back my expected wince, there Laura was, poking around her night stand in an ideal Illyana dress. I couldn’t help but jump over the towels and bear hug her from behind.
“See, I told you.” She threw herself down on the bed, and I followed. Jumped up again to close the curtains, and then gave me this look that made me tingle all over.
“How the fuck did you get out?” I was tense, and I wanted desperately for her to lay down beside me and rub it all away. These feelings confused me, yet seemed so natural.
“Simple.” She joined me on the bed, the headboard thapping the wall. “I didn’t move for a day, didn’t open my mouth except to empty my 3 trays.” Brushed the blue out of her face, and smiled. “So in their eyes I was back to high society, and they had special doctor orgies which resulted in my freedom. Neat, huh?”
I stared at her, and at her tightly made bed. I felt so shy, so weird.
“What happened to your ankles?” She quickly Twistered herself around, flopping her feet onto the pillow while she cautiously caressed the new scabs.
“Sometimes I don’t want to walk any more.” Her feet were freshly marked, still smelling of pen vapor. “Or to live any more.” I cautiously touched a red circle, and it was warm.
“Listen here.” Started to tickle my feet, but it felt more like a kiss. “You are mine now, and that means I get to die first.” Clara walked in for a second, made a loud I’m listening noise, and then left in a huff.
“You are so weird….Laura? Frisbee?”
“Given name, earned name….it’s all the same in the end.” Turned back around and crawled up to face me. The bed creaked slightly, and in the distance I heard a laundry cart.
“Did you mean what you said the other day?” I was breathing heavily, wiped my right palm behind my back.
“You mean is the world going to end?” Her eyes, I wanted to lick them, to taste their vision. “Yes, but only for me.”
“No, I believe that.” She had a faint scar on her upper forehead, and I instinctively reached out to touch it. “I mean the note.”
“The note?” Took my hand and placed it to her cheek. How could I not want her?
“That we’re going to leave.” I drew my feet towards her, and when they touched I promised myself never to cut them again. “That we’ll be together.”
“Silly Jenny, we are together.” Brought my hand to her lips, and sucked on the fingers, like straws full of lemonade.
“I can’t stop thinking about you…” I was shaking, and she drew me next to her. She smelled like freshly cut grass.
“Don’t.” Brought her hand to my mouth, and poked inwards. “Please.”
Was it I that kissed her first, or her me? I want to remember the taste of her nose, of her lower left breast, but I can’t, not in the way I should be able to. Everything was too fast, too perfect, to reliant on some master stroke of fate that gave me life and started the countdown to irrevocable separation and sadness. All I know is that on Sunday morning I didn’t want to die anymore. I wanted to live, with Laura, and nothing would ever change that.
Clara came back again, and “accidentally” fell through the white plastic curtains, effectively putting an end to my bliss. I’m not sure what she thought she found, but I wanted it to be blatant, to flaunt my first and only love in her face. The half-nakedness was enough for her, and before I could regroup the room was full of nurses, and it took me on the floor begging to Illyana to not being put into the quiet room again. Laura skipped in with a smile on her face, and her silence filled the unit. Her heart sang of me, and of something else.
The white. Always the white.
My bliss lasted until Day 32, when Laura was allowed to go to her first meeting. She sat across from me but kept staring at Arnold. I hated her for that.
He tried to bum a cigarette off of her, but she didn’t smoke. She played one-on-one with him, while I cried behind my sunglasses, wanting the lounge chairs to become electrified. I really didn’t understand, she was supposed to be mine but there she was obviously taken by Arnold, and his tall, smooth brownness that even I could appreciate.
Quarter tried to make me feel better by letting me win at pool, but I just went off and sulked by the vending machines until bearded Eric came over and told me his only story, this time with a twist.
“You know the new blue-haired girl? In 1996 she’s going to eat the sun and all the lightbulbs will break. Do you understand me?”
I didn’t. I did. I asked him how he knew so much and he coughed-smiled.
“Come on! She’s broadcasting, like channel 6, 11 and 34 all wrapped into one, and everyone knows it.” Scratched at his bushy neck. “You think the doctors aren’t afraid? The blue hair….”
He was crazy. I was crazy because I understood him. He gave me some stray cigarettes and a pat on the shoulder, and babbled on to himself back to the TV room. That night they found him dead – heart attack – smiling underneath the static.
I didn’t do anything on Day 33. Didn’t eat, didn’t even get out of bed. Laura came by once, snuck in and kissed my cheek, but I didn’t even react. No purpose, no moment, no life. If she really didn’t know what was going to happen, then she would have stayed and caressed me back into the world. But I had a ways to go yet, and in the end she was just passing through. She would be back for me, when the time was right.
I had my first visitor on Day 35. My father.
“Jen, you look so much better.” 6 foot, clean shaven, flannel and jeans, and the most annoyingly lovable voice in the world. I missed him.
“I don’t feel any better.” He pressed his hand against my forehead, and smiled.
“But you are. You will be.” His new wife was going to have a son in a few days. Gregory – not as cute as Ai but then who possibly could be?
“Dad, get me out of here. I don’t belong here.” He sat down in the wooden chair by the table, and frowned, like when I was 10 and my mother was nowhere to be found.
“I’ve authorized your doctors to keep you here indefinitely, until everyone is sure that you’re better.”
“Then you can come live with me and Rachel, if you like.”
This was wrong. Why couldn’t I just die and be done with it?
“Yeah.” Problem is that I would never be better. Still am not. I couldn’t wait for the doctors to realize this
“You mean it? I would love to have you back…” He stood up triumphantly and kissed me on the cheek. I smiled away the pain.
“I’ll come back in next week, O.K.?” Rachel needed him. His family needed him.
“I love you.”
Silence, as he consulted with Illyana and I stared up at the ceiling. The tiny holes that regularly pricked the tiling were suddenly comforting, each one a potential route to take, a quicker way to the end. Why did I want finality so strongly? What did life have to offer me in the first place? I lived despite my mother, despite the terror and the pain, and no matter how much I tried to help, or to keep Dad and her together, she always ended up drooling on the floor – killing me slowly. The fuck with it, if that’s the plan then why not go all the way, and so when I left her I resolved to run and run until I couldn’t go on any more, dig my own grave, and be done with it. Then I could be free of my mother, of the scars that no one can see, of everything. Of course it didn’t work, and she got to die while I was poked and prodded and analyzed and medicated and told how broken I was, a gingerbread girl that needed reconstructive baking.
If I “improve,” do I win, or do they? And if I died then, in the halls of stately Thomason, or 2 years later in a dirty bathtub somewhere, wouldn’t that be just more proof for their hypothesis? The only choice was to live solely to spite my captors, and so I prayed to the dark behind the ceiling holes to give me enough strength to get out of bed, forsake the knives, and shame them all with my brilliance despite it all.
And I did. I put on my clothes, went to the next meeting, sat right down next to Laura and openly held her hand. I talked about my life, and my mother, and the nights when I would stare at the walls in the dark, breathing in the stillness, wanting to make it permanent. No more yelling, no more broken telephones, no more mistakes.
When it was all over, even Towel gave me a hug, and I didn’t push her away. It turned out that her father was like my mother, only he took it out on her sexually, and instead of screams through the walls there was the warm white stickiness between her legs that would never, ever wash away. Thus her obsession with being clean, with protecting herself from the invisible unknown, and after we had a talk we came to an understanding. She even shared a secret with me, one that turned everything around for the better.
It seemed that right after she found Laura and I together that Sunday, she had a massive flashback back to what had happened with her father, as anything even the most remotely sexual usually produced. So she was in a serious state, and when Laura finally was allowed back into her room Clara had stripped all of the sheets off of the bed we had glowed upon, and covered the mattress with towels. Laura got to the bottom of it all soon enough, and then started talking about me. About what had happened, and about how she felt. It turned out that she wasn’t ignoring me at all, but was just giving me space to get stronger. She needed me whole, so when we did leave nothing would trip us up. You would think that escape would be the last thing you’d want to tell Towel, but she never said a word, not even on Day 68 when everything was Code Blue and she sat crying on her bed.
“I’m not clean,” she yelled. “I’m not clean.”
On Day 40 I was up to a pack and 6 pool games a day. Bliss.
“I used to sell my brother’s Star Wars figures so I could have another hit.” Arnold only did half a pack, but his new record was 346 consecutive free throws – he didn’t remember the number of misses.
“Yeah, well I used to suck on 10 cent super balls, like jawbreakers. Between bounces.” Frisbee hated smoke, green felt tables and always tongued her meds. She had an empty shampoo bottle full of lithium on her windowsill.
“I used to make my Stacy dolls sell their bodies on the strip, and then strangle themselves with waxed dental floss.” I was hoping for lung cancer. To be eaten inside-out by car exhaust, melting pieces of death that look cool when you stand around holding them at your hip.
“Fuck, you’ve got me. I fold.” Went back to his book of the day. “Falling,” this trashy novel about an airplane steward wanted world-wide for raping passengers when they went to the scary plane toilets. I recommended it; at the end he’s blinded by salad tongs and dies in an institution. Best laugh I had all month.
“Chicken.” Laura was working on the connect-the-dots for antizine. One way, it was a TV, the other, a kids burger-meal box. Our pile of spare change and sugar packet loot was huge; the boys always overbid. “I used to turn on the vacuum cleaner and stick the tube in my mouth.”
“I used to open up the vacuum cleaner bag and lick the dust off my fingers.”
“Sick fuck!” She leaped up from the table in a mock fury as I swiped my winnings into my Illyana dress, which I had recently converted into a backpack.
“Sick but oh so sweet!” Arnold gave a Hah! from behind the paperback.
“I’ll be the judge of that,” and Laura dragged me out of my chair to the center of the room. All of the chairs were still pushed back from group; we were using the cafeteria for important Big Bill visualization exercises, and opted out of the popcorn filled after-party. Bribed Steve with future compliance, and so he gave us 15 minutes of run-wild time while he flirted with the cute nurses – especially the blond one that took everyone’s temperature.
“Not in front of the kids!” Too late. She was break dancing on the carpet, and forced me to join her in a wrestling match. I let her win, and she gave my mouth a victory lick. It was our second day of open affection, and Melissa from the night shift left me a Hallmark earlier that morning: “No tongues now!” I adored her, she let me smoke in bed.
Actually, I was starting to feel comfortable with the whole system – it was like junior high school only with a lot more detention, sex and drugs. In fact, if you were addicted to anything, the last place that you should be was in a hospital because everything was way too available. Arnold had to push away bags despite himself, and I had all day and night to plan my demise, with assistance from the staff. They loved to talk about that stuff, took notes even.Clara was gone that night, on a two-day stay with her parents, and Melissa looked the other way when I took her place in the shadows, Laura at my side. We whispered about our free future while she marked up my belly, the ink filling the air with intimacy.
“In 10 years I’ll do this again, and then you’ll understand what bearded Eric was talking about.” I moaned yes as I sucked on her earlobes, the water fountain down the hallway humming itself back to life.
She never mentioned John, even though she knew, but in the end that would have been too cruel. What mattered was that she was mine then, and I hers. Nothing else.
I sucked on her dangling hair as she covered my chest with sugar winnings, and every sticky lick upwards made me want to put away the dental floss for good.
The next morning, when Melissa sleepy-dragged me back to my room, I gave her the Illyana backpack full of coin, and told her to buy some red hair dye on the outs.
Not for me, for Laura. Blue just wasn’t her color.
I’ll never understand why Laura turned into Frisbee, but once she did there was no stopping us. The walls dissolved, the secret blatant, and we slipped out into freedom.
Am I ahead of myself? Yes.
Day 46 was the start of the conspiracy. Only the two of us were actively involved, but Quarter, Arnold and even Towel played their parts. We all started talking in fake school, when the annoyingly nice teacher wasn’t paying attention. The prevailing metaphor was basketball, as per the genius of Arnold.
“All we need is a semi-perfect pass, and then we’ll both go for the sweet 3 pointer.”
“But I’m already close to fouling out, and I can’t risk not being there in the final seconds.”
“Don’t worry Doug, Laura is a good coach. She knows what she’s doing.”
“Can I play? I want to play, too.”
“You can substitute, Clara. But first, we need to measure the courts, O.K.?”
So it was decided. After school we went down to the hoop and openly discussed our plan while we played. It actually did involve the basketball, along with a fake 8-Ball, the best intentions of Illyana, and a little help from Spazz.
The basketball was easy enough. Arnold had been trying to arrange a patient vs. staff tournament for the longest time, and somehow got it to happen on Day 68. So most of the larger doctors and nurses would be occupied on the courts while Laura and I made our move. The 8-Ball we made in activity, glazing a clay sphere the exact same size as a regulation pool one, with the expressed notion of making our own set, one ball at a time. Big Bill really thought that this was funny, which was appropriate considering what happened to it. What better way to sound the alarm than when we were already home free?
Illyana was far more problematic. She had taken the both of us as her personal charges, and Frisbee hated her because. I knew that she really thought that she was helping, what with her special gifts and heart-to-heart talks, so I felt awful to distract her the way that I did. But Clara was game, and on Day 68, during the big basketball affair, she started to freak out and kept calling for Illyana. “I’m not clean,” she sobbed, and there was no way in hell that her counsellor could resist. So while they had an intense one-on-one, I packed my Illyana dress with the bare essentials, left my almost full yellow card on the pillow, and met Frisbee out in the yard. We were both on 30 minute checks at this point, so no one would be looking for us anytime soon.
“Spazz’ll be here in 10 minutes. He’ll drive past the fence,” she pointed past the youth center, “and then we start the long walk.”
“This isn’t going to work.” Big Bill passed by, smiling. He had on his purple-intensive Hawaiian shirt, part of his extensive collection.
“And how are you ladies doing this afternoon? Enjoying the weather?”
“It’s a beautiful day. Yeah.” She was such a ham, but it was true. A perfect sky, with long, stretched-out clouds smeared across the light blue.
“Group today should be fun. Brenda and I have come up with some great relaxation exercises.” Brenda was new – very cool, always reading Kafka, too bad I couldn’t get to know her.
“Sounds fun. See you there.” Frisbee took my hand, and we walked over to the courts. Arnold was putting on a real show, slamming the hell out of Bob the yo yo guard. During a quick water break he sweated over to us and gave big hugs. Surprisingly, no one complained.
“I’ll come back for you. I promise.” Frisbee was starting to cry, which surprised me. Arnold wiped away her tears and gave a sad smile.
“I’ll be O.K. When I leave, I’ll come looking for the two of you. O.K.?”
She couldn’t speak, but I O.K.ed us both out of there. He went back to the game, Spazz’s car drove by, and it was time.
Walked past the records building – where my life story was filed away, only I could never read it – to the pool room’s sliding glass doors. Paul, the speed freak skater, used to always put band stickers on it, and they made him scratch them off weekly. That day, it was Intruder Alert! – the one with the walkie-talkie. Frisbee smiled as we entered.
Douglas was playing pool by himself, as per the plan. He gave us the fake ball off of the table, and pulled me aside quickly for one last smoky kiss. I let him, because I knew no one else would. Gave us his assurance that there would be 2 minutes until he broke the fire alarm open with his cue, and so we walked around the corner through the unlocked unit, straight to the lobby.
To the right, the central TV room and visiting area. In front of us, the hallway to our rooms and the cafeteria. To the left, the door to the outside, unguarded and wide open. Always wide open, always so bright.
We took five careful steps towards the phone booth, and gathered ourself while watching Spazz position the car. He was our ticket out of hell, but turned out to be an even worse form of torture for Frisbee. But that’s for another time.
Then, on Day 68, as Clara cried and Arnold flew, we left the receiver off the hook, turned left, and walked out into the sunlight.
Ran as we crossed tree shadow. The parking lot was old and cracked, but the cars doctor new.
Frisbee let the 8-Ball sail, and as it fractured Big Bill’s Porsche, alarms went off both inside and out. Douglas did his part.
Spazz waived us inside, the engine running, and I tore off my hospital bracelet with my teeth and left it on the curb. “Where to?” He was wearing his Circle X uniform, left work especially for our escape. Laura still has his shirt in my closet.
Crying in my true love’s arms as we turned the corner, the sunlight reflecting off of beautiful bus stops, I could only yell one thing:
In the distance were fire trucks and ambulances, fast approaching as cars swerved left and right. We waived to them as they rushed past.
They waived back.
April 5, 2011 § Leave a comment
Last week, when I took Ai to kindergarten for the first time, and her sweaty hands clamped onto my fingers – as she buried her nose in my belly button, looking for a way back in – I couldn’t help but notice how much she glowed. Ever since I first kissed her squint I could feel her tiny face spark gold back at me, I could see her shimmer like the setting sun through cherry blossoms, but holding her head in front of the classroom – as she gnawed at the ghost umbilical cord between us, savoring the final taste of the womb – her shine nearly blinded me, and I had to let her go before our love fused us back together. Between the tears that salted my T-shirt, and the chill morning air that reddened her ears, it took all the strength in the world to bend down and sniff her neck – Mommy’s a doggy she would say to Pyr, can I pet her? – smelling the baby shampoo and bubble bath that marked her as my own. The sun hung frozen in the sky, trying hard to clear the breath that trailed off my lips while I nuzzled against her, whispering a trail that would lead Ai back to me in the afternoon. Listen to your teacher I said, but all she could feel was the tickle of the words that blew past her chin, bringing forth a giggle-smile that lit up the world like a TV set does a dark room. I put that smile in my pocket as she floated off into the class, and when the door finally closed, followed by a bell that bounced between the buildings, I could still feel her warmth against my thigh.
That lingering heat reminded me a little of lazy afternoons digging up carrots in our garden, Ai resting her head against my leg while she pointed out the good ones. Also of the monthly runs to the beach, when Pyr would walk back and forth all across the sand, looking for those clear, little, pink rocks that we keep at home in a jar. Keeping one eye on him sifting through pebbles for the occasional treasure and the other on Ai, cautiously approaching the undulating water line, naked yet hardly concerned, I would lay on our towel – the blue one we stole from that hotel years ago – as the high clouds mingled with the seagulls swarming overhead, waiting for something, anything, to wash ashore. Every so often, when the waves she taunted started to eat at her toes, Ai would run back to me, gathering sand with every step, and plop down on my belly. Clean my feet! she would demand, pouting as she straddled me like a merry-go-round horse, my armpits serving as stirrups and stretched shirt collar her bridle, riding me until I grabbed her ankles and brushed everything away, making sure to tickle as much as possible. She would roll off in glee, crushing the sandwiches as she kicked off my grip, and after catching her breath would crawl back over to my side, sticking her hands up my shirt in an attempt to retaliate. I’m cleaning Mommy she would say, brushing against my breasts, pulling at underarm hair, and I always made sure that she never missed a spot.
Even so, I felt so dirty when school swallowed Ai last week. Walking back home underneath trees that couldn’t wait to get their yearly trim, their sagging leaves fading if only in spirit, I found myself reaching down to the space she was supposed to be in, hand patting only the remembrance of a head. At the first stoplight I went so far as to hold back Ai’s shadow from crossing, fearing that even the semblance of lowering my guard would take her away from me forever. When the light turned green and I didn’t feel her tug, this itchy feeling rushed up my back, like a night sweat from too much tossing and turning, and no matter how much I tried I just couldn’t find the right place to scratch. Something was snaking up my spine, its fangs anticipating the sour swallow of every collected nightmare and almost was, where Ai lay bloody in the grass, or under the wheels of a car, or swimming in a sea of strangers, trying to find a familiar leg to grab onto. By the time I reached the other curb whatever was affixed to me snapped off, overextended and bored, for there’s only so many ways to make a mother squirm, and it’s better to save the best ones for more stressful occasions. Besides, Ai was back at school, ripe for awkward feelings as she introduced herself to the class, or practiced writing her name on her e-slate, drawing stares from the teacher as the strokes grew and grew. I tried to teach Ai her name in English but she wouldn’t have it, already attached to the complex beauty that was Ai. Was love. Was her.
The only thing worse than letting your daughter out into the world is letting the world into your daughter. I wouldn’t give a fuck if she wrote everything in Japanese – her grandmother would hate me for it – but as soon as she tried to really do anything all the keyboards would be foreign to her, all the net-ops language police too lazy to think in any other way. The electron has become synonymous with ASCII – 26 ugly letters and the numbers behind them – and no one has thought to ask why. Her only refuge are the e-slates and nihongo-ware that I snagged the last time I went back – the first time since I was 3, when my mother deemed it proper to make me a gaikokujin, a foreigner, before it was too late, before my mouth and brain reached the point of no return. Looking at the pictures of me waddling in front of Hachimangu – my mother to one side with the strangest look on her face, my father implied in the snap, in bits of his shadow peaking into the frame – I can almost hear my running giggles, almost feel my spoiled pout when I didn’t get a window seat on the train, but I can’t understand the whispers of my blooming heart, I can’t place my mind back in that space, that place, and twirl in the wonder that pervaded everything. When I finally walked those gardens again – Pyr playing my fathers role, only in Hi-8 this time – I couldn’t help but skip along with Ai, floating in the essence of the moment. Her feet were my past, her smile my regret, and even though she was only there for one summer I promised myself to never take that time away, from either of us.
Instead of going back home and painting everything Japanese with broad strokes, I put it to myself to be more insidious, and more thorough. Since Pyr has a lot of my mother in him, especially when it comes to assimilation, I made sure to speak in English to Ai while he was around. However, whenever he went off to work or Ai and I had some time to ourselves I would introduce a Japanese word here, a sentence structure there, concurrently with the English equivalent. After she learned her ABC’s it was only a small step to group the letters together into kana, the hiragana serving as much as an art lesson as script practice. When she was about 2 and fully versed in the basics of both tongues we would talk to each other in a peculiar mixture of the two, and when Ai would answer my questions with a robust Hai Pyr assumed that she was being overly friendly, constantly greeting me. Of course, when Pyr came across Ai sitting in front of a sheet filled not only with kana but a few basic kanji as well, and told her to Stop messing with Mommy’s stuff she replied curtly mama no hanashi jya nai, I wrote it, you wanna see? After regaining his composure Pyr hollered at me to come in the kitchen and see why Ai’s turning Japanese, and when I saw her scribbling away at her story about A-chan, her imaginary friend, I was too proud to deny what had been going on.
If only Mother could have found it in herself to feel that way about me. Wanting to make sure that I spoke English instead of Japanese was not the real reason that she convinced my father to move back to America. Even though he didn’t have too much trouble finding cultural spheres within which he was accepted, once he met my mother all bets were off. His understanding of Japanese culture and clear strengths in communication – which were what allowed for his success as a translator – did much to endear him to the Suzuki clan, but in the end all they saw in him was his foreignness. Not that the racial difference bothered them extremely, it was just that they knew far too well that if he married their daughter – their only daughter – relocation back to the U.S. was very likely, thereby endangering Atsuko’s inheritance of the family estate – what amounted to little more than a moderately sized home. Tradition would have them live with Atsuko’s parents, so that their care in later years could be assured along with their investment. Being truly in love with their daughter, and understanding their position, David offered to meet their terms and remain in Japan indefinitely. It was quite possible that given time, and subtle coaxing from their daughter, the arrangement would have become acceptable to Takashi Suzuki – his wife Yuuko was prepared to go along with his decision – but Atsuko was never one to understand the necessity for diplomacy.
Ever since she was very young my mother has had an attachment to all things “American”. Old enough to have experienced the seemingly beneficial effects that the U.S. occupation produced, but too young to have lived through the military buildup culminating with the wholesale destruction and “revision” of Japan that centered around the unprecedented attacks of August 6th and 9th, 1945, Atsuko knew only of the strong country across the Pacific that was leading Japan hand in hand down the path to economic superpower status. The incredible expansion of the 60’s, combined with the “obvious” Western brand of refinement that was being infused into the country daily, was enough to make her wish quite often that she had been born an American. This desire, while shared to certain degrees by a number of her generation, usually was tempered with a desire to work as hard as possible on Japan’s behalf, so that perhaps someday it could stand on the world stage with a status equal to that of the U.S. Atsuko, however, simply wanted to promote the American way of life, irregardless of what happened to Japan and its people.
Since she regarded things Japanese as being necessarily inferior to their American counterparts, a large part of her adolescence was spent in the acquisition of not only American cultural artifacts, from records to clothing, but of anything and everything in English. Besides the typical language study in school, she spent inordinate amounts of time plowing through novels, newspapers, textbooks, whatever she could get her hands on. Her parents paid little attention to the content of her studies as long as her grades were good, and prospects for a lucrative career strong. Actually, Grandpa Suzuki – that’s what mom makes me call him – told me that all the photo magazines sprawled with katakana, and the snatches of English slipping from under Atsuko’s door kept him up at night’s worrying that the neighbors would regard her as some sort Shinjuku jyoroo, an American groupie or worse. So he and Yuuko always made her sit down in front the television and watch the daily cooking shows or the national news, no matter how banal. This is your country he would say when Atsuko fidgeted, Rice isn’t just going to jump in your mouth, especially if you don’t respect the fields the harbor it, the farmers who collect it, and the factory workers like me who heap it steaming into your bowl. Atsuko would rebound by stating that In America every family has so much rice that even the factory workers throw it away when it get’s cold. It took all of his concentration for Takashi not to slap her after she said that, but instead he pictured the Tokyo Tower in all of its glory – an image which always relaxed him as well as his fellow foundry workers – and simply said that The Americans wouldn’t know a cold piece of rice if it was stuck in their throats. He nearly died laughing when he told me this story, and Pyr had to help him back into his chair while Ai stared at his wrinkly red face, transfixed. Atsuko’s response was much more subdued, and typically American: she ran off to her room and slammed the door, cranking up the first LP in English that she could find.
Of course, it was expected that she would marry soon enough, so the emphasis upon making Atsuko a well-rounded person who followed her parents’ wishes down to the letter took second place to her homemaking skills and overall appearance. Thus, when she would dress up in the latest American fashion after high school and on Sundays, her parents frowned to themselves but put on airs of approval, particularly when they saw the large number of Japanese boys that were attracted to such clothing. While neither condoning nor allowing dating at such a “young” age, they were nevertheless relieved that their daughter wouldn’t suffer for a lack of suitors. Of course, when it came down to it, all the boys in the world wouldn’t matter one bit if none of them exhibited traditional values, and weren’t clearly involved in an enterprise that could take care of not only Atsuko, but her parents as well. Takashi told me that Yuuko would judge all the boys that came by not by their demeanor or physical appearance, but whether their shoes were shined or not. If they don’t care what impression they give to me when I bow to them at the door, she would fuss while washing the dishes, Then they can keep their shoes on and walk right back past the gate. For some reason, Takashi grinned, Most of Atsuko’s friends wore sandals when they came to visit.
After finishing her university work – majoring in English Literature, much to the chagrin of her parents – my mother went to work as a O.L. for Sony, using her language skills to great success in the International Marketing department. That is, as much success as an Office Lady was allowed to have, arming the telephones and making copies for her male “superiors”, who took her ideas as well as the credit. Even though she was involved in a number of long-term relationships with “promising” Japanese men, both in and out of the office, none of them struck her fancy. Everyone looks the same, so plain, she told her mother in a moment of desperation, Not like American men, with their colored hair, tall, strong bodies, and independent natures. Yuuko couldn’t find it in her heart to reply, certain that something was seriously wrong with her daughter. So she took it upon herself to set up an o-miai – an arranged marriage meeting – in the hopes that an exceptional Japanese man would finally bring her to her senses. Mom didn’t even show up to the first meeting, offended that her parents would interfere in something as personal as love, particularly with anything less than a Western man. This sort of sentiment was way before its time, and it took weeks of consoling by Takashi for Yuuko to finally throw up her arms in disgust, telling Atsuko to Go to Tokyo and pick up the first sailor you come across. I suppose the only reason she didn’t was that she was too busy at work to run around looking for the kind of man she desired.
As luck would have it one Friday night in late 1970, the movie my mother chose to go to was the same one that David Watson had picked. Poking around in the darkened theater – mother can’t help but be late to everything – she noticed the silhouette of a man who clearly didn’t belong. Almost a head taller than those surrounding him, not wearing glasses, and far more relaxed in appearance than the usual student or office worker, he was clearly a foreigner even in shadow. Being the first American that she had ever seen in person, Atsuko was drawn to the seat behind him like a mosquito to a sleeping body, darting to the left and right as the image flickered in front of them, trying to get a good look at his face. The strange thing about that night, besides what happened after the movie ended, was that Dad swears that the movie playing was Violence At Noon by Oshima, while Mother insists that it was Dr. Strangelove. I find it hard to believe either of them, because Mother never would have went to a Japanese film, no matter how good it was, and there’s no way that Dad could have confused the two. Anyway, something was playing, and all during the film Dad felt like someone was staring him in the back of the head, but since that what was usually happened wherever he went, he tried his best to ignore it. Once the movie ended, however, and the credits started rolling, the same sensation persisted, and since hardly anyone stayed for the credits, particularly for foreign films, he concluded that whoever was observing him was more than merely curious. Turning around, expecting to see a bratty student or the like, he instead came face to face with Atsuko, staring intensely.
As most men would do when encountering an attractive woman staring at them, Dad smiled and bowed slightly, popping off a Konban wa for good measure. Atsuko returned with a big smile and a How are you tonight? in an accent that most Japanese today would die for. Suffice to say that Dad was doing just fine after that, for as would be expected Atsuko latched onto him like there was no tomorrow. Which actually wasn’t that bad of a decision, for they had a good deal in common, albeit in rather unusual way. David liked everything Japanese, but not simply because it was foreign. Ever since he was conscious of the existence of different places than the one he was born in, Dad did everything in his power to visit as many states, countries, and continents as his parents and finances would allow. There was the cross-country trip at 16 to visit Uncle Rob, the German, French and Spanish home stays during the summer after graduating from High School, and the year abroad in Osaka during his Junior year in college, which caused his latent affinity for Japan to well up and nearly consume him. If it wasn’t for subtitled movies, Japan Town and the Asian Library then Dad would’ve never come back to the U.S.. Of course, a Japanese fortune teller on the street swore up and down that he would come back to Japan in one year if he kept a copy of the train schedule in his wallet at all times, and woke up in time to meet the earliest train to Tokyo every Monday. Desperate and not just a little bit suggestionable, David did exactly what she said – of course it wasn’t that difficult considering the time difference – and two weeks before he graduated a friend of the Tanakas, the host family he had stayed with, offered him a lucrative translating position out of the blue. The occasion that you toured our offices, this friend wrote to David’s glee, Was the first time I witnessed a foreigner do justice to the Japanese language. David felt honored enough by this offer that he was on the first plane to Japan after his graduation ceremony, not even bothering to get drunk with his friends. The fateful movie took place 4 years after he began translating in Japan.
Atsuko, as can be expected, was itching to meet an American man, no matter what he was like. Fortunately for her Dad is probably the nicest, considerate, loving man she could have possibly met in all of Japan, American or not. And Mom, well, she’s driven to say the least, and won’t settle for anything less than what she considers the best. Once they spied each other there was no separating them, and after then filed out of the theater to the neighboring coffee house, Mom wouldn’t drink any of her tea because she wanted to have her Palate clean to fully taste his lips against mine. This suggests an supernatural degree of confidence on her part, but hands held across the table turned into walking arm by arm to the subway station, evolving with her prodding into a sweet touch of mouth to cheek to lips which Raised me at least 100 feet into the air, I felt like I grew high above the train tracks, ready to step over them. Like I said Mom’s not the most realistic person in the world, but she did get what she wanted, for within a year’s time they were engaged, pending the approval of Atsuko’s parents.
Which brings us back to the big decision. Takashi and Yuuko Suzuki were this close to allowing the marriage, especially since David had offered to remain in Japan. Strangely enough, he met their image of a perfect Japanese man more than most Japanese men did, especially when it came to traditional values. He knew exactly what to say and when to say it, understood the concept of respect better than their own daughter, and had a fine job that would easily take care of the four of them. Atsuko, however, had no intention of staying in Japan and O.L.-ing herself into a stupor; David would be her ticket to greater things in the country where she should have been born in the first place. She knew that her parents wouldn’t allow them to marry unless she stayed, and since eloping was out of the question – David wouldn’t support that in a million years since it meant disrespecting her parents’ wishes – she seemingly acquiesced and promised to stay with her parents. That settled, Takashi gladly took in David as the son he never had, and Yuuko thought that she would finally have opportunity to get close to her daughter.
The wedding was a traditional Japanese ceremony, and David’s mother and father, along with their 15 year-old daughter Jessica, flew in to see their son off. Progressive enough to accept Atsuko as part of the family, yet American enough to miss a church ceremony – the trailing white gown, the bouquet, the English – Tom and Mary Watson nevertheless cried their heads off, and if the pictures are to be believed the Japanese flying back and forth didn’t get in the way of their happiness. Dad was clearly ecstatic, staring at Atsuko lovingly, drinking his sake lovingly, even bowing to the Suzuki’s lovingly, if that’s even possible. Atsuko, however, was less than pleased. This is only speculation on my part, but considering that when she broke her parent’s hearts and moved to America anyway, the first thing she did was make sure that she had a “proper” wedding ceremony, church bells and four-tiered cake, her smile increasing with every step down the aisle.
Not that my parents left immediately, mind you. Quite the contrary, they waited until 3 years after I was born – November 17th, 1972, for those who give a fuck about such things – before Atsuko tried to convince Dad that The best thing for her now is to be around people speaking English, so that she won’t be at a disadvantage. Dad had a fit and for the first time in the marriage openly disagreed with his wife, reminding her of their pledge to the Suzuki’s. The look in my mother’s face in the temple pictures, that’s the face of someone who’s about to steal her daughter and fly off to America, barging in on her in-laws and twisting things around so Dad’s the evil one, chasing her away from happiness. Torn between Atsuko’s parents and his responsibility to his wife and daughter, Dad made the best decision he could, arranging for someone to stay and look after them when he went back to the U.S. Takashi understood Dad’s choice and did his best to adapt, but Yuuko was devastated, losing not only Atsuko but seemingly her granddaughter as well. Knowing that Atsuko would never come back home save for their funerals, she went into a period of morning for her daughter, dead in spirit if not yet in fact. In fact, until Yuuko died in 1987, the whole neighborhood though that I was orphaned, Atsuko dead due to “American Flu”. If only things were so simple.
Forced to give up his dream job, Dad soon found work with Matsushita – Panasonic over here – serving as interpreter between the U.S. and Japanese arms of the company. Mom was happy enough just to stand on the soil, breathing in the air of freedom, and had no desire to work whatsoever. Once she finally got to the land of her dreams, English skills in hand, she found herself moved from the role of extraordinary citizen to unimportant commoner, and yet this didn’t bother her one bit. She had me to convert to the “proper” American ways, and was committed to see that every last vestige of Japan was sucked out of my soul. “Japanese-American” is an excuse for failure, she would always tell me, That’s why I made sure to give you a normal name. “Normal” meant Laura Elizabeth Watson, carrots instead of daikon, hamburgers instead of tofu, no kanji, no kana, no me.
When I was Ai’s age, on my first day of school, Mother took away my pencil box, the one that Yuuko gave to me, saying that American girls don’t need to be ordered. My favorite bag was Too Japanese, I’ll get you a Star Wars one or something, so you’ll fit in. My hair was Too straight, are you sure you don’t want me to put a curl in it for you? It’ll be cute. My cheeks were too round, my eyes wouldn’t open far enough, I was defective, even my voice sang of the other. When she dropped me off at school, not walking me to the door of the class to promote “independence”, I found myself among girls and boys that almost resembled me, that seemed to want me to fit in. The teacher – Mrs. Addison, tall gray hair and glasses – put me next to Yuki, the only real Japanese girl in the class, who’s mother wasn’t ashamed to give her a real name. I guess she thought that we could relate or something, but when I tried to bring forth nihongo – my lips quivering as my tongue sought almost familiar places – all that came out was watashi. All I could say was “I”, and she sat staring at me, her perfectly straight black hair brushing past round cheeks, waiting for the qualifier. What about you? she frowned, and all I could do was stare at my construction paper. My mother says that only Japanese people should speak Japanese, so you better be quiet. I wanted turn myself inside out and show her the tag that I imagined hanging off my heart – made in Japan. I wanted to fly her across the ocean and show her my grandparent’s house, the corner store, the cars running the right way. She’d never even been there, hadn’t even felt the feeling, and yet seemed more Japanese than I would ever be.
I never spoke Japanese to her again, never spoke it to anyone except my imaginary friend, and even she told me to shut up after awhile. This is America my mother would yell, When are you going to grow up and just be normal? I wouldn’t bother to cry a response, instead scrawling unimaginable curses in shaky kana on bits of paper, burning them with a lighter I found on the street, and brushing the ashes in her shoes. She would complain to Dad how her stockings were always dirty, and I would hide a knowing smile. Her native soil was coming back to haunt her.
Unfortunately, my mother doesn’t scare that easy. In fact, thanks to her undying commitment to Americanize me through and through, I did the appropriate thing and ran away from home as soon as I turned 13. I don’t want to get too much into it now, but sufficed to say that all the elements that she worked so hard to repress suddenly welled forth, splattering her with the foam that laps against Honshu on all sides, where Japan juts upward and parts the still waters with its brilliance. I was flowing with potential, more than I could ever possibly use, and the only thing I knew to do with it was ball all my hatred of her up into a pulsing little sphere and run with it for the endzone, throwing aside her multifaceted tackles with the sheer desire to be free, to be myself, to shine. Sure, she caught me after a few months, sicking the Thomasonites on me because it was For your own good, just you wait and see, and wait I did, like I had a choice to do otherwise, and through the drugs and “therapy” and restraints and fence hoppings, it all came down to the quiet room and me. Sitting in the dark on a urine-encrusted mat, waiting for them to bring my meds so I could spit them back in their faces, crying for the street, for a window, for any sign of the world beyond the six walls and industrial-strength door, I saw the truth through all the tranquilizers, past all the pain. Everyone was so dark, so red, it hurt to just to look at them, to witness their anger. Fuck it. You’ll hear about it soon enough. Besides, Thomason is long since past, and now I have Ai, now I can right every wrong that my mother perpetrated with glee.
Which brings me back to last week, to Ai’s first day of kindergarten. As soon as I stumbled back home – the desire to turn around and run for her tripping me up – I noticed that there was a letter still in the mailbox from Saturday, a corner sticking out past the box door. As soon as I took it out I had a funny feeling that something was up, there was no return address and they used my middle name – no one knew my middle name except for family, Pyr, and the odd bureaucrat. And the font looked so familiar – I couldn’t exactly place it, but I knew that I’d seen it somewhere before. If I had looked at the postmark right away then the mystery would have been solved, but impatient person I am, I tore into the letter right there on the front porch. Inside was a yellowed envelope, seemingly stepped on a few times, which obviously had been diverted from its destination. The return address was in my writing, or at least what it was when I was in Jr. High School, and the address was of our old house up north. It was addressed to me.
I guess a little explanation is in order. When I was in Jr. High, before I ran away from home, I had the urge to write my future self a letter, and since regular mail isn’t delayed more than a few days, I decided to stuff it in a library book at our school, one that no one ever read, so it would take a while before it was found. Then, according to my optimistic plan, someone would find it and place it in a mail box, thereby completing the circle. After things got all crazy and I left school I had more than enough on my mind to worry about the letter I planted, and I soon forgot that it ever existed. But here it was, staring me in the face like I don’t know what, and I had no idea what it said.
What did it say? The following:
You must be freaking out about now. I know I am, with Mom on my case, Dad long gone, and this buzzing in my ear that won’t go away. I guess I was listening to my Walkman too loud, or not loud enough. Anyway, it really sucks and I wish that it would just go away. I wish that I could just go away, but I can’t, and you know that, because you already have. You’ve been there and back and there again, and have already forgotten about me and what I’m going through now. I’ve been waiting for signs and all that shit but all that came to me is the frisbee which hit me in the head today at lunch, stupid Greg wasn’t looking where he was throwing. Or maybe he was, because after it bounced off he and Steve were cracking up, on the cement even, and they made me so mad that I picked up the frisbee and walked over to where they were sitting. I told Greg to apologize and he called me “a flat-chested Hello Kitty,” and Steve started to laugh again, and even though I don’t like Hello Kitty that much something snapped inside, deep down underneath my stomach, and I took the frisbee and smacked him upside the head with it. Steve started to crack up even more then, and a crown of people had gathered around us, going “ooooh” and “damn” while Greg got up to feet and walked over to me. He said “who do you think you are?” and I said “a frisbee that going to keep whopping you upside your head until you apologize.” “Frisbee, huh?”, he said, and then he turned to Steve and gave the “she’s crazy” look, and Steve started to laugh even harder and so I hit Greg over the head with it again. He was all red now and said “O.K. Frisbee, you better fly off now before I kick your ass.” Everyone was all “oooooh” all over again, and I knew I couldn’t back down now, or I would be a Hello Kitty after all, so I turned like I was going to leave and then spun back around and popped him on the head three times. “Say you’re sorry Papa Smurf, or I’ll stuff this frisbee up your ass.” He looked at me, looked at Steve and the people around him, and looked at the yard monitor coming over to the crowd. “I’m sorry Laura” he said, trying hard not to look like too much of a sissy. “Call me Frisbee, Papa Smurf, and you better not laugh at me again if you know what’s good for you.” And with that I walked away, before the yard monitor could tell that I was involved.
You better remember this day Frisbee, because I know I will. I’m never going to be anyone’s Hello Kitty. Even though my ears won’t stop buzzing, I know that when they do, when I come back to school tomorrow, no one’s going to mess with me again.
Anyway I just wanted to remind you why you’re Frisbee, because I know it’s gonna stick. If anyone ask’s you why just say “Wham-O”, and they won’t know if you’re talking about the company or hitting Greg, and they’ll back off because they’re scared to get hit. If only Mom would be scared of me like that, then everything would be perfect.
Is everything perfect now, Frisbee? I really want to know. Write me a letter and leave it in the same book, I’ll get it some how.
Laura Elizabeth Watson
(I mean Frisbee)
P.S. What ever happened to Greg? Don’t forget to tell me about it.
For those that care about the particulars and all that shit, the letter was sent from my old house up north, by my mother, who tried to be sly about it but has no idea that I know her old manual typewriter like the back of my hand. I used to use it while she was taking a shower or vacuuming or something just as loud, so she wouldn’t hear it bite the paper as I imagined my future exploits, or wrote love letters to the librarian, either creation being burned and flushed down the toilet so she wouldn’t get the right idea. Still, I have no idea why she sent it to me, especially after all these years, and without even opening it. It’s like throwing a frisbee up into the air at the perfect angle so that it comes right back to you, and after you catch it you just stand there, holding it in awe. You don’t exactly believe it, but the clouds pass on by anyway. That’s what all of this was like.
Anyway, I had almost forgotten why everyone always called me Frisbee, especially when I was in High School and Greg and Steve still hung out together. Greg was the quarterback of the football team and Steve kind of a nerd, but they always found time for each other, hazing freshmen or harassing me in the halls. I wasn’t afraid of Greg hitting me or anything, but since I knew he liked me some, ever after that day in 8th grade, I always kept one eye behind me when I opened my locker, because he was known to be an ass-man, his hands finding their way on the rear of more than half the girls in our class. Still, he never got a piece of mine, and I guess that’s why he still called me Frisbee, because he was frustrated, with me not being a flat-chested Hello Kitty anymore and him not coming anywhere close to scoring. I have no idea where he is now, probably in the NFL or some shit like that, like I could really give a fuck anyway.
But I guess I do give a fuck, because without Greg then I wouldn’t have snapped, I wouldn’t have confronted my mother, and I never would have hit the streets. Of course, no streets means no Thomason, but without Thomason I doubt I would have ever met Pyramid, and without him then I wouldn’t have Ai. And I wouldn’t have her first day of school, when I went at noon to meet her, watching the other mothers line up one by one next to me, trying to peek in through the blinds for a sign that their boy or girl still existed, and more to the point, still recognized them. It’s the last thing I would have expected, but the first little figure out the door was Ai, beaming from ear to ear, e-slate under her arm. Mommy Mommy look what I did. Look what I learned! and she ran over to me simply radiant, stretching out her e-slate for me to look at. Did you have a good day? I said between kisses, and she laughed See what I know! while she nodded. I crouched down to her level and took the stubby stylus out of its well, pointing it at the blank screen. Suddenly Ai’s face appeared on the tablet, in black and white but her shine came right through, and she looked me straight in the eye and said:
My name is Ai. I am Japanese. Yoroshiku o-negai shimasu.
Holding her deep with my arms, tears wetting both of our hair, I finally forgave Yuki for her kindergarten slight. The screen continued:
My mommy is Japanese too. But don’t tell her mommy that. It’s a secret.
Somewhere, Yuuko was smiling.