There’s the smell of her voice. Mouthfuls of smoke and the spearmint gum she cracked and chewed. Metal from the coins and a small key she hid under her tongue. Some nights, late, it’d smell of blood gone dry — a cut on the lip, a cracked tooth — but also of something old. A cultivated staleness, a certain kind of loneliness that makes the whole of her mouth cavernous, as if she’d feret the life right of you. Take all of you in. They asked me to write a poem in fifth grade about my mother. Focus on a detail, something specific, they said. This was a time I swallowed voice, when hers was the loudest sound, and although I was nine I didn’t know how to describe my mother, which is to say the only way that I thought of her was to conjure her voice, and how it reminded me of a storm. So I did that, wrote a haiku, counting the syllables on one hand. Letting the words form and settle, and I handed in a sheet of paper where I likened my mother’s voice to thunder:
Crashing through the night
Roars filled with evil laughter
Lightning veins the sky
But maybe I should have written what her voice smelled like. That would’ve been more accurate; it would’ve gotten me closer. Someone asked me how I know how to do what I do, how I’m able to understand the world through writing about it, I never know how to answer that because this is something I’ve always been able to do. As I child my mother told me about the rules: Never cry. Never be vulnerable. Never be afraid. Never love anyone. So I lived much of my life like that, swallowing voice and practicing coldness. But my notebooks were a refuge, and I wrote out my sorrow like song, like sermon, and I remember what reading fiction first felt like. How I moved from the simple detective novels or stories of lithe blondes wearing pearls and fretting over their finery to leaning up against my locker reading John Cheever, Ernest Hemingway, J.D. Salinger, and John Updike. From a city that perpetually glinted to the genteel homes in Connecticut where there existed a mudroom, I got lost, deliriously so, in the darkness of other men’s words. In a junior high school filled with girls took for granted their expensive denim and fine hair, I read The Catcher in the Rye and felt awakened. I felt as if someone was talking to me, a friend pointing to the scribblings in their binder and saying, this is me laid out to pasture. This is me, too. These men wrote about loss, something I understand far too well. They wrote about masks, and how a whole society subsisted on the delicate maneuvering of masks. Everyone was on the verge. Everyone was frightened of the emptiness underneath. They built this beautiful, idyllic world that was determined to ruin. As if you decorated a house with lush carpets and tasseled pillows to discover that you neglected to build a floor, thatch a roof.
And then the thunder. And then the storm. And then the ruin. Does the story always start with, and end with, loss?
I wrote stories about girls who hung themselves from shower rods, girls who slept on linoleum floors as roaches skittered past, girls who inched out onto fire-escapes to read to escape the junk sick. Ceremoniously, guidance counselors held my typewritten stories and inquired about troubles at home, to which I’d shake my head and laugh and asked to be returned to class.
Of course there was something going on at home. There was always something going on at home.
When I first read Catcher, Bullet Park, The Sun Also Rises and Rabbit Run, I connected with the characters, but strangely enough I became fixated on the author. I wondered how he did it. Here I was, thirteen years old, ripping pages out of books and trying to diagram a story. How did someone create a whole world of hurt when I was only able to create a city of it? A house of it? And over the years reading gave me power, allowed me to find my voice, and although it’s been years since I’ve read the authors who unzipped my eyes open, I regard them with a certain kind of tenderness.
And then I think about how the most advanced yoga students actually go back to basics. They re-learn poses, break them down and rearrange them all over again. And after watching the horrific biopic that was Salinger today (it was so bad I can’t even talk about it), I was inspired to re-read his stories.
To revisit the girl who was thirteen, creating fiction.