If you’ve ever read anything I’ve ever written, you may have noticed that I’m obsessed with time — keeping it, losing it — for its the one thing for which we truly have no dominion. I could say that my fixation of time is directly correlated to my fear of death (so traumatic that thinking about my final moments can easily send me into a real panic attack). Lately, I’ve been meditating on my obsession from a different perspective: the clarity and space that only time has the ability to afford you. And after a considerable amount of thought, I came to this: I’m writing some of the best work I’ve written in my life, but it’s difficult in form and structure, slippery (you can’t catch it, nor do I want you to), odd in my use of language, and dark. It’s not for a wide audience, and while this sort of notion — the sell-ability of a piece of writing — was once so important to me, I’ve come to realize this.
I could give two fucks if this collection doesn’t find a traditional publisher. I could care less if no more than 1,000 people read it. I have no more fucks to give for dumbing down prose and making life easier for the reader. I’m creating what excites me, what I think will excite you, and if you love it, AMAZING. If you hate it and give up, it’s been nice knowing you.
Bravery. Feeling assured. Scary, monstrous things, but I’m all in.
I originally wrote this story and published it on Medium, but after a few reads I found that there was a lot missing. So here, dear readers, is my latest.
HIDE THE MATCHES
Tell me the story about the autistic girl lured into the men’s room in a gas station in Reno by a man with candy folded in his hand. When the men cover the girl’s body with a stained sheet, a reporter breaks down at the scene – her face is a tissue forever crumbling. They man who cut the girl in two wired flowers in her hair. She smells like blood and old blankets, someone mutters. Or tell me that one about the couple who got crushed in an avalanche, because they thought it romantic to picnic in a Sierra snowstorm. Open the door (slowly, slowly) to the bathroom to see a woman lying on the floor, her jaw broken in three places. Watch her husband crawl in and bite her toes in apology (my little shrapnel, he jokes but no one is laughing). The wife barely feels the peonies he hails over her swollen face. Show me the veil belonging to the girl pushed down the aisle to marry the man who stole her childhood from her. Go, says the mother who refuses to wince, even when the man puckers his fleshy lips, rubs his calloused hands. If I hold the lace between my fingers long enough perhaps it will erase the shame we collectively carry. Perhaps it will undo the first and every hurt.
I’m right here. Tell me all about it. Speak slowly. Convince me that there isn’t a love that is wound that never closes. How love in reverse is one vowel away from evil.
I’ve got a confession to make: sometimes I lie awake and imagine men burning. When I was small, I used to watch fires in the country. Back then we thought it smart to burn rather than rebuild.
Why do you insist on hiding the matches from me?
The women in white hats buckle me in and I yell, traitor. Snug like a bug in a rug, they pantomime. Everyone tells me that the shocks are fast, that I won’t feel a thing. I laugh because I’ve been down this long road to the middle before, and I feel everything. My affection for metal becomes a hunger that the men with their clipboards and pens aren’t able to understand, much less diagnose. When I’m free to roam the halls, which I do as often as I can, I lick the undersides of tables. I bite down hard on metal carts and gnaw on lunch trays. As a result, I’ve been banned from silverware. Spoons are a delicacy and also my ruin. My world has been reduced to paper plates and plastic cutlery – for my protection, they say.
Morning Inventory Checks:
•22 identical rooms in square footage and décor
•44 blue sheets and white pillowcases with blue trim
•66 towels, 2 for each of the wards, often re-stocked due to hangings, tears and stains that can’t be bleached out
•44 women, mostly girls, mostly brown-haired, wide-eyed and moneyed. The girls are nervous, paranoid, angry, ambivalent and fragile creatures. There are a few who refuse food or eliminate it. We only know of one – a winsome girl, barely out of her teens – who eliminated two children before they were born
•44 men are to blame: fathers, sons, husbands, uncles and brothers, who have signed us over. One Saturday a month they’ll bring us lilies (death flowers) and books we’ll never read. As if we need more propaganda
Sometimes we trail the nurses as they make their counts. Some of us will shout out numbers to mess with them, but the nurses are unfazed by us, and go on with their clipboards, pens and endless boxes that require ticking. At night, they peer into our rooms with flashlights to make sure that we’re alive, that we’re still here. It’s funny, if you think about it. No one entertains the notion of escape because where would we go? We would be the nuisances on our families’ doorsteps, a nudge in the passenger seat, an elbow gripped and gently ushered back into our rooms where the sheets have barely cooled. The men are good at this, we realize, escorting women from one cold home to another.
Everyone tells me that I’m here to rest. They repeat the word cure as if incanting a prayer, and I ask, “What’s my disease?” Shaking their heads, they don’t want to talk about a disease, per se; they just want me to rest. As if I’m a piece of china that would shatter and break.
“Well, then. Give me my fucking spoon and let me go to bed.”
The next day, a doctor says this: “Let’s talk about your daughter, Gillian.”
I don’t tell them about the incident with the bleach, but I suspect they already know. “Is this about the bleach? I assure you the burn was minor. Nothing more than a mild irritation.”
The doctor inquires whether I think it’s normal to bathe a newborn in bleach. “Get your story straight; I didn’t douse her in fucking Clorox. What do you think I am, crazy? What mother would bathe her child in bleach? Where I come from, they put you in the chair for hurting a child. Even in here, we ignore women like Nora. Women who eliminate.”
“Your husband found you cleaning your child in a sink, with the windows closed and the room smelling of bleach, Eleanor.”
“It’s Ellie, and my husband is dead in the head. Maybe I’ll send you an invitation to the exhuming.” I pause and consider my words. “It’s perfectly normal for a mother to clean her child. Perhaps we differ on our methods, but don’t judge the intent.”
“Do you consider yourself a good mother?”
“What does that even mean? A good mother,” I say; my laugh is a series of hiccups and snorts. “Does wiring me up like a car that won’t start make you a good doctor? Have you every considered that the car doesn’t want to start? That all it wants is to be covered up and rolled into a garage?”
“Cars aren’t capable of emotion, Eleanor.”
I light a cigarette. My hand is an earthquake. “Jesus Christ, how many times do I have to tell you? It’s Ellie. My name is Ellie. Ellie. Ellie.”
Well, Mary, you’ll make a fine organist for that church. Be very satisfying to you, I think.
It’s just a job to me.
Well, that’s not quite the attitude for going into church work.
I’m not taking the vows. I’m only going to play the organ.
A nurse shakes me. My body is ravaged with sweat; everything clings in all the wrong places. My sheets are soiled, and next thing I know they lift me up (easy, easy, you got her too high), they strap me in, adjust the dials and read meters, and they tell me to bite down hard. This is the point where I begin to realize that not all divisions are mathematical.
The dreams I had. I dreamed someone was raping me. I think it was someone inhuman.
Why should I bother telling you that my body and my name are mine, when you refuse to listen? When you laugh and say that I will always come from, and be delivered to, a man; my name is part of a male lineage, and my body a receipt of the transaction. My hair done up in the shape of a bow.
In the morning, I tell the doctors that they’ve got it all wrong; I don’t hate my daughter. There will come a day when I will have to hand her over, when she will emigrate from my husband’s house to her husband’s house, and her name will change and her body will breed, and on it goes. The incident with the bleach was my attempt to scrub the man out of her. Wipe the slate clean.
“Don’t you see,” I say. “The thing with the bleach. What I’m trying to tell you. What you need to know is this: I’m trying to get my daughter back to zero. I’m trying to get her clean. But I ended up burning her. No one gets it; no one wants to.”
Answer me this: why is it that you always end up with so much less than with what you started?
We drove to the desert. Before we boarded a plane that took us to France, where we stuttered in our appalling French in the Marais, took the sun in Biarritz, and wrangled prawns with our hands in Marseilles, I asked my husband to drive eighty miles west, to the abandoned pavilion. A wide tract of land that had once been a bathhouse, then a carnival, now forever doomed to be a mess of rotting wood and scalding sand.
“A strange way to start our honeymoon,” he said.
I told him that this drive would be his one gift to me. He nodded, adjusted the radio dials, and we spoke about the probability of dust fires and wind storms the whole way west. As we drove through a heat that threatened to set the car aflame, I saw water on the horizon, or the promise of it, and I when I mentioned this to my husband, he said, “It’s only a mirage. The mind has a way of deceiving you.”
“This is true,” I said.
We’re close. I could feel it. I closed my eyes and remembered the sweep of lights, a halo of blue and white that had hung high from beams surrounding the pavilion. Tufts of cotton candy, men walking on stilts, towering and waving from the dark above, plastic guns that had spurted water into the gaped mouths of clowns, the haunted house tour where the boys had given us a fright when they lurched out of the shadows with their pitchforks and burlap masks with holes cut out for eyes – there was something about the carnival that was subversive, threatening, if you lingered long enough. Back then dust always got caught in our eyes, blinding us. After a few beers, we played a game where we palmed the darkness, feigning blindness. I can’t see! We screamed on all the rides: We’re going to die!
We’d built a carnival to be a cathedral.
Construction of the pavilion had taken four years to complete on account of men who were tired from the drink or the heat to hammer and saw once the afternoon sun blanketed the desert. Their exhaustion (and neglect) showed in the smallest of ways: a floorboard that splintered and cracked, beams that swayed dangerously, and bolts and screws that had come undone. We’d been discrete in our corrections; we patched up the holes, reinforced the beams and hung white lights. The carnival had been devised as a rest stop for the hopeful on their way to California. In exchange for a fright and a joy ride, they coughed up silver coins that we collected in our coffers.
My friends were plum-wearing vultures, bent on snaring. They wore pressed dresses, curled their hair, and applied gloss to their lips, entertaining minor rebellions with the boys, while I leaned against a gumball machine, waiting for the sky or earth to open up and swallow, whichever came first.
It occurs to me now that I’m finding it hard to keep all of this – the pavilion and our miniature world playing in it – in the frame. Stay with me. Wait until the part where I talk about the girl with the red balloon. Then you can leave. Only then. But first, this:
“People die in this kind of heat,” my husband interrupted.
“We’re almost there,” I said.
“It’s a shame about Cassidy. What those boys did to her. How they found her by the lake, all cut up like a piece of driftwood. Face all swollen and bruised. Damaged goods, they say. She’ll never marry, they say.”
“They talk a lot, don’t they?” I flicked a lighter, but it wouldn’t ignite. They never did.
My husband laughed, “I suppose they do.” In a smaller voice, he asked, “Have you spoken to her?”
“She won’t see me.” When I was small, my father had told me that he was in the business of the severe. As an insurance agent, he talked about aggregate limits, damages, opportunity costs and liabilities. He had to separate the desperate from the luckless.
“I know how close the two of you were, but maybe it’s for the best. Clean break and all. Some say she’s going down south.”
“I doubt that. Take a left at the fork,” I said. Face pressed up hard against the window, I prayed that the midday would burn the tongue right out of my husband’s mouth.
Sometimes it’s easier to practice rebellion in your head.
They had brought in the umbrellas and the girls scattered like fleas. On a day colder than the one where I rode back to a previous life, one where I had been happy for a time, the rain came down like a victory. The cold warned, but we ignored it, determined to pass our days face flush from a kiss under the rafters, sticky from all the cotton candy, or in collective apoplexy from the roller coaster ride. During the day, the carnival painted us in reds and hot pinks, but come nightfall our mothers held us down and whitewashed our lips shut. I remembered holding hands with my girlfriends, hoping the winds would carry the rain east.
We’d caught wind of a concern that we had been spending too much time at the carnival; people worried over the abundance of touch, the billowing of skirts on rides, and the cavernous rooms they couldn’t monitor and control. We can’t stop what we can’t see, the mothers had cried aloud. Yet pavilion profit had silenced the talk, as vast sums of money tend to do.
Then the girl with the red balloon – I told you this was coming. Only she wasn’t a girl, rather a woman in a girl’s uniform, with her tangled mess of hair and wide eyes that threatened to devour. She wore dungarees and a white t-shirt soaked to skin, but even then she looked feral. Like she could bite. We leaned into one another and whispered about the girl with the red balloon. What emerged was this: her name was Cassidy, she was fifteen and lived in a house no one could afford. Here we were, feigning airs, preening ourselves without whatever coins our families could scavenge and hustle off the tourists and daytrippers, but Cassidy was the real deal, and she wasn’t outfitted in furs or pearls – finery of the affluent we all read about and pretended to affect.
The girl with the red balloon had worn dungarees. Do you understand what I’m saying? How her eating a hot dog in the rain with a balloon tied around her wrist was a mockery of our fiction? How it portended to blow our cover, our carefully constructed charade of plastered holes and freshly painted, rust-covered poles? Cassidy set everyone’s teeth on edge.
I’d broken from the pack with my thin cardigan serving as an umbrella, and ran toward her (I later learned that this would always be our friendship – me running toward Cassidy, me wanting to stand under her, feel her glow). She looked up, and I couldn’t tell if she was crying or if the rain created a sort of sad tableaux on her face when she said, “Sit down.”
“You’ll catch cold,” I said, standing over her, attempting to shield. She recoiled, preferring the wind, the mud and the river hailing down from overhead.
“You don’t get sick from rain,” she said, attempting (and failing) to light a joint. “You get sick from germs. Didn’t your mother ever teach you that?”
“Is that what your mother told you?”
“No. I got that from a book,” Cassidy laughed, and paused. “My mother’s not big on the mothering bit. She’s in Goa, adjusting her levels.”
I nodded, pretending to understand, but I didn’t. She might as well have been speaking another language, in another country, instead of in the desert, where it rarely rains, until that day.
“Are your friends going to stare at me all day? I didn’t realize my eating lunch was the main event. You guys don’t eat hot dogs here?”
“It’s raining,” I said.
“Careful. You could be a meteorologist with that information.”
The girls were staring. “I have to go back,” I said.
“To the hive,” Cassidy said, nodding.
“What’s with the balloon?”
“A reminder for all the games I can win.”
“Are we just going to sit here?” my husband asked. The engine stalled. The whole place looked a ruin, on the verge of collapse if we slammed the car door. “What is it that you wanted to see?”
I wanted to tell my husband about the new highway that had been built ten years ago that diverted the cars heading west to luncheonettes instead of carnivals. I wanted to tell him that the boys had given up giving us a fright in the dark because they’d grown petrified. I wanted to tell him that my father’s assessment of the fire at the pavilion had been something in between desperate and luckless, but Buddy Wilde was an old friend, so we’ll let this one slide. I wanted to tell him that I wished I’d never met Cassidy, I wished I’d stayed with the girls under the rafters, safe, because knowing that Goa, and a beautiful house suffocating from so much loneliness, existed, was worse than not having known it at all. I wanted to begin with Cassidy and end with her, but a story never plays out the way you intend it. I wanted to tell him that we all bruise, on and below the surface.
But instead this: “It’s not what I want to see, it’s not about that. Let’s go to Paris. Let’s start this life.”
We went and conceived Gillian. Observe the addition that will inevitably be a subtraction.
My pregnancy was ten months of torment. When Gillian wasn’t practicing her in-utero karate, I could be found on the bathroom floor, sore and raw because my body had grown accustomed to expelling everything that entered it save the one thing that mattered, the one thing that needed to make the journey out, that thing being my daughter. Nine months, ten days, twelve hours and thirty-two minutes, Gillian persisted with the kicking. So hard, it felt as if she would puncture skin. She was smart, this one, hurting from the inside.
I marked the time between breaths using a diamond watch that my husband wound around on my wrist. A little something, he’d said, blushing, for becoming a mother. Confused, I wondered if the watch was a down payment for a life-long vocation, one not of my choosing. Forever locked into a life of braiding hair, ironing dresses, packing lunches, and sitting through games, recitals and minor victories that bored me to tears – was I wrong for not wanting this? Was I cruel for desiring to hoard the one thing over which I had dominion: my time? I wasn’t ready to let it all go. Part of me wanted to hold on to Gillian for as long as I could; for I knew that my daughter’s inevitable gushing out would also be my drowning.
Branded like cattle, I thought. They’re all waiting for me to push the prized calf out.
“What’s it like?” Cassidy asked, rolling paper, licking it. Since we were in high school, Cassidy was forever chasing smoke and dodging rabbits.
“What’s what like?” I said.
“Being a wife, a mother. You’ve got all this love, where does it come from?”
“How do you mean?”
Cassidy laid down her cigarette like a jewel, let it ash all over the Formica. I noticed her hands, how small they were, how her nails had been gnawed down to the quick. How they lunged for the cigarette and how her fingers curled and receded. I don’t smoke, never saw the glamour in it, only the rot, but I was fond of watching my best friend tangled up in her addiction. But I don’t tell her this.
“I always thought you got a finite set of feelings, you know? Like we have two hands and ten toes, and maybe we just have the capacity to love, really love –over, under, and between the sheets and under the skin – only a set number of people. It’s not the same for each person, it couldn’t be. Like my mother only having room enough in her heart to fill my father and her in it. So by the time I came along, she was all tapped out. Drained. No refills or vacancies, and I realized that was the kind of life I was likely to get. But it seems to me that you hit the lotto, Ellie. All these people and you somehow love them all. Aren’t you ever terrified that you’ll hit your limit? That maybe the next kid you push out will have to fend for itself?”
Something within me rattled and broke. In the other room, my daughter was swathed in blankets, sound asleep. If I strained, if I listened hard enough I could hear her breathing – the steady calm of her inhales and exhales that reminded me of a metronome. A clock reminding me of the time she gains and the moments I lose. At night I lean over her crib and watch her sleep. And while I love this innocent, beautiful thing, I can’t help but look at her and think of her only as a subtraction.
“How do you know I haven’t already gone beyond my limit?” I said.
Cassidy’s eyes widened. She leaned toward the cigarette but then paused. “Now we’re playing a whole other game.”
“I always knew you liked to be tied down,” Cassidy says, leaning in, examining my face, all of it. “You quiet types are kinky that way.”
“They say it’s for my safety.” It’s been a few years since I’ve seen Cassidy. Her hair is shorn to the ears, like Mia Farrow in Rosemary’s Baby, she says proudly. The bruises are long gone, replaced by a body freckled and brown from the sun. More than anything I want to hide my arms under the sheets and drape a curtain over my face – all to hide a body that’s been kept in a preserve. “It’s been a while.”
“I never told you what happened down South,” she says. “You should know what happened. You need to know,” she says, grabbing at my restraints, finger the metal of the buckle that I’m desperate to lick. “How to get out.”
Cassidy tells me about a man playing the guitar with gold in his hair, like the summer of love. He strums Paul Simon and Bob Dylan, and tells her that she is his sweet girl. They live on a farm called Eden (sound the alarm, she says), where they’ve a handful of cattle, chickens and cats that take care of the mice. Thirty of them live on the land, sing songs, read poetry and talk about a world where everyone lets the shackles fall from their ankles. During the day, the women cook and sew and clean, and the men smoke joints and fuck the new girls. Baptism, they call it. Bringing the pigs home, they say. At night, they eat out of clean bowls and move from one body to the next like a game of musical chairs. Soon Cassidy becomes the mare, when she just wants to be the sweet girl who hums out of tune. She empties her pockets to the leader – whom they all call Father – all for semantics, for the desire to be small and pure and clean. But the only thing that changes is her name – they’ve given her a new one – and she can’t keep the old, new, and nicknames straight. When Cassidy stops pressing money into the Father’s hands, he has new chores for her to do: men to bring into the family and houses in the country ripe for thievery. One particular robbery gone wrong makes Cassidy realize that she needs to run.
“How could we possibly know that the fucker would be home?” Cassidy says, lighting a Camel, smoking it. She tells me about a baseball bat, blood (so much, you wouldn’t believe), and their footprints all over the mudroom. “Not the kind of shit you want to leave behind. So I bolted. I ran through the trees to the road. I had to blow some trucker from Texas to give me a ride across the state line.”
“My god, Cass. Why didn’t you tell me this? I could have done something.”
“What would have you done? Driven down with that fiancée of yours who would’ve given me a bible and a lecture all the way back to a town that sees me nothing as a tragic fuck-up with a bank account. And you ran off with the car, remember?” she says. “Left me with men who do the things they feel entitled to do.”
I close my eyes. The waves recede. My father once told me he was in the business of the severe. “I was angry, jealous. I don’t know how to describe it. You’ve always been free in a way that I never was.”
“Getting fucked by men isn’t free, sweetie; I know the game, and it’s one where we’ll celebrate our minor victories, but we’ll never win. Not really. Freedom is having cash to bandage the wounds and run. Freedom is saying we’re getting the fuck out of here today, Ellie.”
“That’s not possible,” I say. Suddenly my face is a river. I think of my house with its three floors and windows one could sail out of. I see my daughter reaching for me as I fade and fall out of the frame. I tried so hard to be part of the picture and practice my puppetry. But all I’ve got is a mouth that has a taste for metal and a desire to grab my daughter and run.
“Everyone wants their white house and pretty lawns, even well-meaning doctors. The story is about escape, and I’ll need you to believe it as if it happened.”
The unbuckling of leather – guards, not belts – the crinkle of cotton pulled on and draped over, the fastening of buttons, the buzz of a door, the cool hallway and diverted eyes, the doors that unlock, the light that threatens to blind.
“Let’s go,” Cassidy says, folds my hand in hers. “Let’s run.”