from Spring 2005 [Issue No. 6]
Bernadette Soubirous' Hair and Closed Eyes(Part 1 of 4)
It’s strange to want something that other people never crave. A pilgrimage. A lock of old, dark hair spread out across a pillow. The glitter of polished glass surrounded by an ornate gold frame. The nuns of Saint Gildard, approaching quietly, ticking off their rosary beads in their floor-length black gowns, the cowls that cover their eyes so even in dreams I struggle to glimpse them. But it’s like peering at clots of ash. A smoldering where the eyes used to be, a cinder-gray shining from sockets of whitish bone. I’ve been dreaming about it for years.
I sit up in the darkness, Jackson’s rough-pored face a smear against the carpet. He looks inanimate. He looks — even — dead.
I rise from the carpet, the stench of his turpentine everywhere, the reek of oils seeping up so it nauseates me as I approach the mirror, strip off my nightie, regard the ghost of my body floating toward me in the light through the half-blinded window.
I walk to the window, part the blinds, peer out at the shock of orange moon miles above the flow of dark liquid water, and the pipe.
And then I shrug my coat on, slip out into the darkness, and walk past the culvert to our second apartment, where our baby Lizzie sleeps alone.
All life is about wreckage. Sometimes the wreckage pleases me, as it does when I’m immersed in a montage, clipping pictures of women from magazines, arranging them in various domestic activities for which they seem wildly unsuited — vacuuming, grocery-shopping — then gluing the whole mess together.
Other times, a mess is just a mess. And that’s what we have most days, I’m afraid.
“Lizzie,” I say, when she climbs down off the food-stained chair. “For God’s sake, eat your toast.”
Lizzie isn’t interested. Lizzie is two years old. “Coffee,” she says, and stares, her blonde hair a tangle over her eyes. “Barney. Bear. Bye!”
And she waves, then pushes through the kitchen’s door, peeks through the crack at me, giggling.
Why didn’t anybody tell me about motherhood? About how the love, rage, fear, crowd everything else out? And you’re left there, in the dark, listening to the sounds of your own breath, which is beautiful in an odd, disconnected sort of way. Holding her there in the dark, the white crib shining dimly, her body dangling against yours, relaxed in limb and bone, her small face tucked into your shoulder. Nobody told me. Nobody would. It’s like — trying to illuminate the cosmos with a flashlight.
“Lizzie,” I say. “Mommy’s got to get going. Can you be good, please?”
I rummage in the cupboard, find the last of the cinnamon Pop Tarts, tear the silver wrapper, approach the kitchen door, then crouch there on hands and knees, proffering the pastry as one might extend meat to a tiger.
Lizzie stares at me for a second, then snatches the Pop Tart away. Her eyes are wild. Her eyes are crazy. And — just for a second — I imagine them closed.
I walk back toward the studio in the worst autumn weather in weeks. A slush of wet red leaves rises over my boots. If I stooped to peel them off, I’d end up with fistfuls of mud, twigs that have blown all over the Duveaux Complex, where my husband’s had the temerity to rent a second apartment though we certainly can’t afford it, claiming that he can’t express himself freely when Lizzie and I are around.
And, as I walk, the mouth of the culvert looms closer, a gigantic silver pipe through which rain flows in a torrent of black oil choked with leaves. I can see the culvert from our apartment — Number 43, the one Lizzie and I live in together — and it looks spectacular after a rainfall, the rush and roar of that foaming whiteness mesmerizing, like the images of Bernadette Soubirous from my dreams.
I’m ten feet away from the apartment when I notice him. The drunk student again. He’s sitting there, propped up against the Fleur de Lis section, which is where my husband has his apartment and paints. I never know whether he’s drunk or if he has one of those mental problems we don’t like to read about.
I do know that — no matter what the weather — he always wears a big green parka.
And he’s wearing it now, the hood half-pulled over his face.
I have a key to Jackson’s apartment; I let myself in thinking, Body parts. I’ll dream about body parts tonight, and, in his studio, Jackson’s standing at his easel, a green-parka’d boy on the canvas clasping a flat dark bottle of something against his throat.
“You’re kidding,” I say. “You’re painting him?”
Jackson scratches his stubble. “Why not? My own little Fleur de Lis muse.”
“Because he’s creepy. Demented.”
“Your imagination’s running away with you,” Jackson says, dipping a brush into paint-clotted water. “He’s just a poor, sad little freshman who likes to tie one on.”
“Have you seen his eyes?”
“C’mon, Madolyn. I‘m painting.” Then, he looks around startled. “Where’s the kid?”
I sit down on his couch. “I left her in the apartment. She’ll be o.k. I put her in the playpen, turned TeleTubbies on.”
Jackson looks at me, settles the brush into the glass. “I told you I don’t like you doing that. It’s not responsible. It’s also illegal.”
I shrug. “She’ll be fine. She can’t climb out of the playpen yet.”
“She could choke on something. A cracker.”
“Didn’t leave her any.”
“All right, a fingernail.”
He stares and stares and I love it that he’s right and that I’ll keep refusing to admit it.
So I stand up from the couch, grab his hand, lead him into the bedroom, the apartment shadowy as we walk bumping hips, like drunk kids ourselves, and I work my fingers through his until I dig down through the webbing, press against the bone, the apartment unfurnished except for Jackson’s painting supplies; I guide him into the bedroom though we could do it anywhere, since there isn’t a bed, only carpeting. Before I unbuckle his belt, I roll up the blinds so all that weird, grayish light can wash over us. I’m not an exhibitionist, just not worried about anybody looking in. Only kids live in the complex, after all, and who’d be interested in a couple of fogies going at it?
I shove Jackson up against the wall, work his jeans down over his knees.
“Lizzie,” he says, before he goes silent, concentrating.
When I return to our first apartment, walking a little bowlegged, I don’t even hurry, so confident am I of what I’ll discover inside.
And, sure enough, Lizzie’s standing up in her playpen, watching LaLa bounce a huge yellow ball down a hill.
Lizzie looks at me then, says “Hi,” goes back to watching.
I leave her in there still, hurry upstairs to get ready for school, wishing I had time for a shower, Jackson a faint redolence between my thighs.
I drop Lizzie off at Active Day Nursery, so frantic about being late for Dr. Aptor’s class that I can scarcely concentrate on unbuckling her from her car seat. Finally, though, she’s free, and Melanie Lighter, a blonde with Britney Spears pretensions (midriff-skimming tank top, clingy jeans) leads Lizzie toward the building. I stand there for a second, lean back against the passenger door of Jackson’s Shitmobile, Lizzie walking with short, stumpy steps up the stairs as she clutches Melanie’s hand.
Dr. Aptor is my friend. An environmentalist, he’s inclined to wear protect-the-animals t-shirts ... my favorite is Leaping Lemurs: Let Them Leap and Live. And of all the classes I’m taking, I like his the best. A Nietzsche and Schopenhauer class. My middle-aged self enrolled with fourteen freshmen. Philosophically speaking, this must be The Best of All Possible Worlds.
I’m the oldest student there, a late-baby forty-something squeezed in among shiny-skinned twenty-year-olds. Everything about them’s so fresh, the girls’ skin so pink it glitters as they bend over their Nietzsche and Schopenhauer, tucking lank strands the color of honey behind pearly little ears. And though they don’t wear bras, many of them, their little breasts are so pert that I cast covert looks toward them, wondering how that architecture of nipple and firm white flesh manages to stay upright. Their nubility has heightened in me a kind of a grim awareness of the manifold costs of middle age: after Dr. Aptor’s class, I’ve been known to go home, strip, take a tape measure to my breasts, fathom in quarter inches how much lower the left breast droops today. All this comparison, though, scarcely signals any jealousy but a much more profound emotion: a heightened knowledge of mortality and decay.
Dr. Aptor’s setting up at the front of the room. Today he’s wearing his glow-in-the-dark salamander shirt. I blink and close my eyes and then — when I open them — Dr. Aptor’s perched on his desk, Nietzsche spread open on his knees; his mouth moves slowly, carefully, forming and releasing words, but at first I can’t hear them because I’m drinking in his appearance, imagining his torso stretched in a plumb line like Bernadette Soubirous’.
A furnace. I’m inside a furnace.
I lift my fingers, drag them down my forehead, my foundation coming off in streaks.
We’re walking through the Duveaux Complex, Dr. Aptor and I. Lizzie’s still at daycare; Jackson’s in his studio. Just to be safe, though, I’m keeping Dr. Aptor away from the Fleur de Lis section; we’re wandering the north side of the culvert.
“So what is it about Nietzsche that fascinates you?” I ask.
We pause before the mouth of the pipe. It’s a gray day. At least it’s not raining, though fog hangs like a damp curtain; Dr. Aptor looks at me as if my question were strange, then slides in his sneakers down a slope of flattened grass, thrusts his head inside the pipe.
“Hello,” he calls, and waits for the echo.
“Have you ever been in here?” Dr. Aptor asks, tracing, with delicate fingers, the corrugated metal mouth. “I mean — all the way in?”
“The pipe just goes on and on.”
Dr. Aptor eases one sneaker inside.
“Wouldn’t do that, if I were you.”
“Why not? The pipe’s too high. You couldn’t possibly drown.”
I stand there, knotting my fists, when suddenly he vanishes.
I kneel before the mouth, dampness creeping up through my jeans. “Where’re you going?” I call. “Come back.”
His voice echoes back. “I’m fine.”
“But why — ?”
“Madolyn. Get in here. I’m starting to think you have no spirit of adventure whatsoever.”
I glance up toward the rubbled road that curves and twists through the complex. A couple of college students stand dead-center, eyeing us. The culvert’s mouth releases fetid blasts. Bernadette Soubirous was unearthed after how many years, body still intact. What are the things that can keep flesh from decay? Arsenic, for one. If a person’s poisoned with arsenic, the corpse will remain as if refrigerated for many years.
I keep crouching. Far ahead, Dr. Aptor traverses the culvert, a dim silhouette.
I begin to crawl.
“Madolyn!” he shouts. “What’re you doing?”
I keep crawling.
“Walk! The pipe’s big enough. You don’t have to do that — you’re going to get pneumonia.”
The water level’s reached my chest; when I bob up, streams of silt run between my breasts. Dr. Aptor fights his way back, water soaking the knees of his jeans. When he reaches me, I stand up, lean against the wall. He pauses, considering; then he strips off my T-shirt, unhooks my bra, tugs it off. I’m breathing ... and then not. He wraps both hands around my throat, presses one thumb against my jugular while I unzip his jeans, glance down then quickly up, stare at a green-eyed face.
Are they amphibians, salamanders? Or reptiles? And which are we? Creatures governed by the reptile brain?
He advances. I retreat. The metal wall cuts into my back. I spread my palms across Dr. Aptor’s T-shirt, blind the salamander. Feel him hoist me once, hard, and then the thickness, heat. The water around his ankles slaps in time to our rhythm, his face pressed against the side of my neck so I can’t see him anymore but am gazing, instead, at an immensity of silver, at a corrugated wall that tosses shadows back as I bang my palms against the metal.
Afterward, the smell of sewage: I’ve never cheated on my husband. I try to hook my bra, drop it into the water; both of us stand and watch it rush toward the culvert mouth, Dr. Aptor’s expression dazed as he fumbles with his belt buckle.
“I don’t know,” I say, before he can protest. “I have to go pick up my baby. Then — see my husband.”
“’See him?’” Dr. Aptor asks.
“He rents another apartment. It’s+++complicated.”
“You don’t sleep together anymore?”
“All the time,” I reply, experiencing a secret thrill at his puzzlement.
I just leave him. No good-bye. He never did answer my question about Nietzsche. When I think about it, it’s as if a tiny anger seed has unfurled inside me, sent tendrils shooting up. Fuck him, I think ... and then realize that I did. And he was good. Not too slow, not too fast, just rough enough. O.k., I think, Fuck yeah, I loved it, and tramp through the complex in my sopping T-shirt, cut across a parking lot, climb into my husband’s Shitmobile.
Melanie Lighter stands on the front steps of the Active Day Nursery, clutching Lizzie’s hand; I’ve been late three times this week, and now they’re closed. I hate the look of Lizzie standing there in her beribboned pink dress, sucking on a hair wad. I dart up the steps, my guilt making me run, the wet T-shirt wrapping itself like a soaked rag around each breast. Melanie takes one look at my chest, goggles. There’s a brisk wind starting, and I feel my nipples erect, turn upward like startled eyes. Lizzie cups one hand over her mouth then toddles down the steps, into my arms; I kneel, gazing up.
“Mrs. Campbell,” Melanie says. “You all right?”
“Why wouldn’t I be?” I snap, then swing Lizzie up under my arm, carry her to the car.
Dispensing with the car seat, I ease her into the passenger side, wrap the big adult belt around her. And then we’re on the road, Lizzie counting off words on her fingers: “Barney,” “coffee,” “banana.”
Once inside the apartment, I put Lizzie in her playpen with a graham cracker and Sesame Street, bolt upstairs to take a shower before Jackson comes for dinner.
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