Contradictions

My parents are like children. They are not so old yet that their hands shake when they move and not so young that they have all their memories still neatly ordered. They spend a lot of their time sorting through the supermarket coupons in front of a reality show about cooking or carpentry. When I visit them, I throw out the expired coupons and take out the trash. I make sure they’ve paid all their bills and check that the cat’s still alive. I’ve been living away from them for only two years and already I can’t remember their house feeling like my home. It’s the place where I remember being a child and the place where I am suddenly, wearingly, painfully too adult for my age.

The last time I was at my parents’ house, my mom wanted to make macaroni and cheese for me, to celebrate my being there. It was my old favorite dish when I was young and so she thought it would be special. She left the pot on the stove for half an hour after it boiled and the water had shrunk away while we weren’t watching. She had forgotten to buy extra cheese. She didn’t preheat the oven until eight. I stood in the kitchen and practiced my methodical patience. No, it’s okay, Mom. I got it. Don’t worry, it’ll start cooking while the oven heats up. That dish will be fine, we’re only three people, you can just stick the other half in the fridge and we’ll make it tomorrow. Okay, sure, I’ll grab a container. I’m perfectly calm and using my most tolerant voice so that you won’t accuse me of all the seething that itches under my skin.

My dad sat at the kitchen table and read a magazine for the two hours that this went on. I brought him a beer. He nodded without looking up. When we finally sat down, my mother had to ask him twice before he would look up from the pages and realize, bashful, that we were only waiting for him. While we ate, my parents asked me chipper questions about the job I’d left four months before.

I don’t remember anymore if my parents were grownups when I was small. I couldn’t have noticed, in the same way, if they brought the shopping list to the grocery store or if they ever got back into the car without unhooking the gas pump. Everything was funnier then, anyway. Now I take it seriously and it makes me want to laugh. What else can I do?

I try to visit less and then I worry that they can’t get on without me. If they’d never had a child at all, I wonder if they’d be able to take care of themselves. I wonder how they ever took care of me, or if they did. Now when I go back to the place where I am a child, I take care of my parents.

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Messy

Mashed potatoes were all over the ceiling and the boots were making the table muddy. She knew she should never have let Harry look after the kid. As Emma stood in the doorway of the kitchen, she watched a clump of potato detach and fall, with a wet thunk, to the floor. There was a scuffling sound in the hallway and Harry appeared with a spray bottle of cleaner, a sponge, and a dawning look of guilt.

She watched him approach without saying a word, her mouth tight, her fingernails engraving lines on her palms. Harry shuffled past her, into the kitchen, and applied himself to the table. She didn’t move as he scraped the mud off of the wood with a rag and then sprayed the table with surface cleaner. He scrubbed until the sponge had removed all the mud, and then it seemed to occur to him to take the boots off. He dropped them, and they thudded on the tiles. She signed at the spray of dirt from the soles.

“Mama, what is Daddy doing?” Great, Emma thought. Angie was up again. She turned and picked up her daughter.

“Don’t worry, baby, he’s just cleaning up the mess you two made. It’s okay. Go back to sleep, okay?” She bounced Angie on her hip, gently.

The child clung to her neck. “It’s dark in my room. I don’t want to sleep. I’m not tired.”

Emma disentangled her daughter and held her hand, pulling her down the hall. “I know. I’ll put the nightlight in, honey, but you’ve got to sleep. Can you try?”

Angie nodded. Her eyes were round and trusting. Her daughter’s face sent a wave of warmth through Emma, edged with irritation. She lifted Angie into bed and dragged the blanket over her, kissed her forehead, and plugged in the nightlight. Motherly duties dispensed with, she returned to the kitchen to check on her husband’s progress. He had found a mop and upended it to wash the ceiling. The stringy bits of the mop scraped against the ceiling, wiggling at the end of the handle, while Harry dodged the ends.

Emma walked into the kitchen and sat down at the table. She had left the house so neat that morning when she’d left. She had known it wouldn’t stay that way. Harry had a magnetic power to him, a charisma that charmed grease and grime to creep shyly over surfaces. He persuaded everything to get a little crooked, just for him. He was very convincing about it. He liked things a bit messy.

Emma was neat, usually. She tidied and dusted. Harry used to tease her about her domestic tendencies, but she’d been hurt, despite the affection in his voice. He’d tugged at her apron and called her Mrs. Clean. She’d spritzed him with water and they’d ended up getting very messy. She smiled, remembering.

Now Harry had somehow managed to spread the mashed potato in a thin smear from the refrigerator to the space over the stove. Emma wondered if it would dry that way, making a bumpy crust on their kitchen ceiling. It had been a long day, and she couldn’t bring herself to care very much. She would fix it tomorrow. Sometimes it felt to her as if she spent more time cleaning up after her husband than she did after her child.

Harry paused in his efforts, his lips pursed and his gaze resting on her face. He propped the mop against the counter and leaned toward her. Emma’s husband put his dirty hands on her shoulders and he kissed her. She didn’t respond, didn’t move, for a moment. He was soft, but she was annoyed. Harry moved back and looked at her. “Hello,” he said. “I’m sorry, babe, long day.”

“Mine too,” she said, her tone forbidding.

“I know,” said Harry. “I’ll fix it.”

“The kitchen, or my day?”

He smiled, hopeful. “Both?” He held steady, looking at her, waiting for her reaction.

“No,” she said. “I don’t think you will.” His eyes flickered, and she could see him holding his smile in place.

“Okay,” he said. “I won’t. I will try anyway, though. Come here one second.”

“Okay.” This time she kissed him back, letting him pull her face to his.

They looked at each other, his shoulders hunched and her brow furrowed. A chunk of potato that had been awaiting its moment freed itself from the ceiling and fell with a splat to the tiles between them. They couldn’t help but laugh.

Tell Me A Story

Okay, honey, one. I’m tired and it’s been a long day. You have to go to sleep after that, promise?

Once upon a time in a faraway forest there was a fairy named Erstenpraktertolanima. She was a very lonely fairy, because she had no friends. This is because all of the other fairies who tried to befriend her could never pronounce her name, and so they gave up. One day Erstenetc. walked away and climbed up a mountain and then she met the trolls. She met a lovely (though ugly) troll named Prince Lumpy, and he told her, “Ersten… um, Fairy, you should go visit the goblin-people of Shhhhton. They are exactly what you need.”

Don’t you remember Prince Lumpy from the other story? Well here he is. He’s doing fine, happily ever after. Are you feeling sleepy yet?

So Erstenetc. walked and walked and walked, and just when her feet were so blistered that they had polka dots and her body slumped so that her fingers nearly dragged on the ground and her wings were folded like a moth’s to her body, she came across the goblin-town.

Well, it looks just like our town except that all the houses are green and there are signs everywhere. Like there’s a sign outside the first house that says, ‘House Number One! The Collinses!’ and the second one says ‘The Post Office!’ and the third one says ‘The Bennets! Also The Bakery!’ You see, goblins really like signs, and they are often excited about everything.

She walked in and tried to introduce herself to the little old goblin-lady selling doughnuts, but the lady shook her head helplessly. She waved her hands in the air and looked at Erstenetc. with a look of expectation on her goblin-face. After several failed attempts at conversation, Erstenetc. realized that the goblin-people of Shhhhton did not speak with voices. They spoke with the quick-sharp-graceful-soft fluttering of their long-fingered goblin-hands, and they shaped words and sentences and whole stories with those drawings in the air. Erstenpraktertolanima learned the sign-language of the goblin-people and made wonderful friends who never had to pronounce her name at all, and she lived with them happily for ever after.

There, sweetheart, there’s a story. Did you like it? Oh, you’re half-asleep already. Good night, darling, see you in the morning. Sweet dreams.

 

Maybe

It was Tuesday that it happened. Or actually, maybe it was Thursday. I know it definitely wasn’t Sunday though. Anyway, it was sometime in the morning and I had just gotten out of the house. I saw Mr. Rowland when I was walking down the street, and he waved at me. Or Mrs. Rowland. One of them had the little girl trailing along like a little piece of cotton, caught on an adult’s hand and dragging a bit on the snarls in the road. Megan, I think her name is, right? She waved at me with her free hand in kind of a desperate grab at the air, though I think I’m a stranger to her. I waved, saluted back in a way I guess.

I didn’t see anyone else I knew til I got to the school to pick up Patrick, early, because he was sick. He had a headache. Or a stomachache. Wait, no, I definitely saw Ellen running home with all her grocery store bags slung over her arm. She always walks, because the store’s only a block away–two blocks–and then she piles herself with cans and bags and hobbles home, trying to get everything unloaded before she strains something. She was so harried and shiny that she didn’t even kiss me on the way, just gave a bit of a nod. Though she might’ve said something.

When I got to the school, there must have been at least two police cars in the lot, their lights all flashing. Four cars. Lots of police officers. They were all milling about like ants swarming on something sweet. You could practically see their mandibles clicking. Do ants have mandibles? Anyway, I edged past them and tried to go inside, and someone stopped me, a policeman. A policewoman, and she said–he said, “Excuse me, this is a crime scene. We can’t let you past.”

I felt the ground waver under me and I said, in a voice gone high with fright, “You don’t understand, my son is inside. I have to get in. You have to let me in, my kid’s in there. Please.”

She shook her head, but she was uncertain. I said “Please,” again and she turned to ask. I ran in, like I was sneaking in, my heart pounding too fast and my brain blurred with panic. I shoved through the doors and ran, and my feet pounded as fast as my heart down the linoleum hallways of the school. I could hear the buzz of voices in some nearby corridor, down the English wing. Or math. It must’ve been science, actually, I think I remember the wasp wings or frogs and skulls or whatever it is in lacy tufts and clunks of bone, all caught in jars that lined the shelves running down the hall.

I rounded a corner and there was a whole gaggle of people crowded around a body on the floor, my god there was blood streaking the cheerful dull tiles and limbs crooked and there was Patrick’s face in the crowd peering over and my god, my heart skidded and thumped and then picked up its ragged rhythm. I thought all my bones might just let go and clatter on the floor. He saw me and he ran to me. He elbowed his way through the crowd of kids and teachers and the shrill words, “Everyone, it’s okay, he’s going to be fine, it was an accident. Back up–Sarah get back right now or you are staying in detention for a week. Back up.” Patrick landed in my arms and I don’t know what they were all saying or what the other kids were doing or what was happening with the kid on the floor or the cops who were filtering through, saying things like “The ambulance is on its way, ma’am, has someone heard from his parents?”

My kid’s arms were locked around my neck and he was shaking a little, just a tiny shuddering in his shoulders, and I held him while he tried not to cry and I felt so immensely hugely scared and relieved and certain, for a moment, that holding onto Patrick meant everything was going to be okay. I remember that.

Insides

Doesn’t it ever amaze you the you have bones building the shape of your body and muscles layered onto those bound on with tendons and sinews and there is fat pillowed around those and veins laced and woven and then skin stretched and sagging over the whole damn thing and when you glance over and see that teetering miracle of unlikely fortune, all you see is a person? Someone you like or someone you want to get out of your way, really, but isn’t it just so strange that you can only see the very outside of all a person is? It amazes me. It certainly does. It is so strange that people stop being amazed by it. When there are little babies and they’re all wide-eyed at everything because the world is so brand-new beautiful, that’s what that is. They are amazed at the folded twisted wrapped-up gift of guts and grime that is a human being.

There was this little kid I used to see at the playground when I went sometimes after work. I would just sit on the swings with a cigarette. It’s okay because there usually wasn’t anybody there that late, not when it was getting so dark I couldn’t see the black of the smoke that swept into the air and sank into my skin. This kid though, she would show up like a ghost, walking down the sidewalk and appearing of a sudden like something come to haunt me. She would come and sit next to me on the swings at eight at night, just casual, sitting with a stranger like it was no big deal.

I don’t know what kind of parents this kid had, but it must have been something strange that they let her wander around and talk to strangers like that. They must’ve been holding onto her so loosely that they nearly let her drop and fall and hit the ground. It was lucky that all she met was me, because I never did a thing, I’m not like that, but there are some real creeps out there. I told her stories sometimes but it didn’t help, she just listened all solemnly to me telling her that the pervs and murderers might be just around the corner. She didn’t even care. I’m pretty sure there was something really screwed up with her family I guess, there had to have been.

Anyway she liked to come and sit next to me like some weird friend or something, this little girl who must have been nine years old or something like that, about half my height so that she had to hoist herself up when she wanted to sit on a swing by gripping the cold bumps of the chains and pulling until her entire little body was suspended in the air, and then she would thump into the swing.

I told her mostly other kinds of stories, I mean I didn’t just tell her the ones about the crazy people who wanted to hurt her. I didn’t want to scare her or anything. Mostly I told her about me. I don’t talk that much in general, there aren’t so many people who want to listen to me ramble. It was a nice thing to be able to tell this little kid stories of who I was and watch her face all still and calm, listening to me go on. She had some kind of gift for listening, that kid, I swear she could hold herself on that swing and be so statue-still until the only thing that moved were her eyelashes when she blinked. She just listened like nobody else ever did.

Sometimes I also asked her about her life, of course I didn’t just tell her stories about me and never want to know anything about her. She didn’t like to talk about herself though, so that’s where my best stories came from. Anyway I would ask her how her day was, how things were going, and when she wouldn’t tell me or didn’t say much I would make something up. I would tell her that the reason she was so quiet was probably because she was tired from spending the whole day climbing the very tallest mountain in the world and then climbing down again. When she was at the bottom she realized that she left her fuzzy hat at the top of the mountain and had to go all the way up again. Plus then after that she had to get on a plane and fly around the world to get back to our neighborhood so she could come sit on the playground with me and my cigarette and listen to me. She laughed at that. Sometimes I think that there is nothing in the world as delicious and strange as the laugh of a little kid like that. It just curls through a person until it nudges a smile out.

The one thing she sometimes said to me, without me asking her and bugging her to tell me things, was that she was thinking about how people were made. She would say that there was so much stuff inside a person, so much blood bottled up under skin and bones pushing their way around in there. We can only see the faintness of veins wandering the paths of our body, and there’s so much of it. From that little kid I learned to look for the depths of people. I know now to look at the tangles and woven strands of a person, even the ones I can’t see at all.

I don’t see her anymore because she stopped coming to the playground. I don’t know what happened, maybe she just got too old to hang around on the swings with a stranger. Maybe she moved away. I hope that’s what happened, anyway. I don’t know. Sometimes I still go to the playground and smoke a cigarette, hoping that I’ll blink the stinging smoke out of my eyes and turn my head and she’ll be there, appearing on the sidewalk in the dark like a ghost. I don’t think she will, though. You will probably never meet that little kid, so I’m telling you to look. Pay attention to people, because all you see is their outsides, the way they talk and move and the curl of their neck as they pull in their head because they don’t want to say what they mean. That tells you something but it doesn’t tell them enough. The next time you look at a person, try really hard to see all of it, the blood moving under the skin and the softness inside and the bones holding the whole person up because otherwise she’d fall and be nothing but a pile of pulpy muck on the ground and not a person at all.

Lost Dreaming

When Amanda saw him, even though she was dreaming, she lost her breath. She wavered and probably said, faintly, that she might need to sit. He was so close and so real, three-dimensional, his face before hers and she could reach out and touch it. As soon as she did – as soon as her fingers lit on skin – she woke up. Of course.

When she gasped in the darkness, gathering the sheets around her shoulders, she felt Mark stir. At once she tried to be still, to keep her hands from grasping and her voice from breaking out. She wanted to wail, but she shivered instead. Mark woke up anyway.

“What’s going on?” His words rustled and rasped in the black bedroom.

She shifted closer to him and tucked her head down. “Nothing, I’m sorry for waking you. I had another dream.”

“You saw him?” Mark pulled her closer. “Honey, come here.” Amanda nestled against his chest, fitting her cheek into the hollow of his shoulder and stretching out against his body, trying to let her arms relax. The tension of waking up still ran like electricity through her bones. It took her a long time to fall back asleep, but at least she had no more dreams.

When she woke up, Mark was already out of bed. He couldn’t have been up for long because his heat was still fading from the sheets. The muted clatter of pans sounded from down the hall. With a shudder, Amanda climbed out of bed and began to dress in the numb air. Mark must have heard her footsteps, because he called down the hall, “Want eggs?”

She paused and thought about it, then called back, “Okay. Thank you, sweetheart.” It took much of her concentration to pick out clothes. The red sweater – no, she’d been wearing that, there was a picture, that time they went to the park together and pushed the swing for an hour. Not those jeans, there was still a marker stain on the knee. That shirt had been her favorite to wear on weekends, when Mark had made pancakes for all of them on Saturdays. Eventually she found clothing that was unburdened by memory and she ducked out of the door, down the hall, turning her head from the closed door. They acted as thought that door wasn’t there. She hoped that eventually it would be easier to ignore, just like part of the wall, and they wouldn’t ever have to go back inside. They could pretend that it didn’t exist.

When she got into the kitchen, Mark snagged an arm around her waist and kissed her. Her smile back was wan at best. They sat with eggs, toast, and orange juice, across the table from one another in silence. When the sound of their chewing stopped, Mark sighed. “I hate when you dream about him. You’re upset all day.”

Amanda’s heart thumped in her chest. She said, “I don’t hate dreaming about him.”

Mark lifted an eyebrow. He was trying to be brave, she thought. He always tried to comfort her, as if it weren’t his loss too, as if it didn’t hurt him as much. It made it all worse.

She struggled to find the words to explain. “It’s not like that’s bad. I mean, they’re not nightmares. He’s there, you know? Still there, still fine, nothing’s wrong. It’s, I don’t know, do you know what I mean though? I just get to see him, while I’m asleep.”

Mark’s mouth twisted. His eyes were beginning to sprout crinkles when he smiled or scowled. She had just begun to notice them. He swallowed, and said, “Right, that makes sense. Okay, so why is dreaming about him so bad if you get to see him?”

She looked at him as if he were crazy. Surely he didn’t really need to ask. “I always wake up.”

 

Inside the Dollhouse

We only move some of the time. It’s sporadic. There is silence, a long quiet relaxation. Dominique is propped up against the toilet, and Leonardo is next to her sitting on the stove. The others are all piled in what is definitively the kids’ room, as it’s the one with the cradle and the swingset. I’m in the room above, under the sofa. Then, so sudden that our breath would catch if we had any lungs, the hand of Fate swoops in and plucks up Dom and shakes her, upside down. Her hair sways, brushes the floor, and then she’s tossed to land with a clunk in the corner.

Later, when everything is over, Leonardo is in the room with me. He’s looking at me, flat eyes gleaming in his faraway face. He’s dipped in the shadow that splays across the room. I look back at him. I know he doesn’t believe in Fate, in the things that move us. Just because the hand flashes in and out of our lives, isn’t there all the time, moves too quickly to see. I’ve seen it, though. I’ve seen the pain and the destruction it causes – why, AshleyBelle was thrown half across the world. Sometimes we can hear her calling out, half-crushed, gathering dust alone under a bookshelf. Sometimes we can hear Marianna calling back. Their voices are the only noises that ever really interrupt the silence when Fate’s not around.

When Fate is around, it’s often noisy. There are shrieks and cries, from Fate I mean, but often the muted sadness that escapes us as we’re separated or bent backwards. But even the hand of Fate thumping against the floor or a body seems loud to us, with our small ears and small lives. It makes an awful lot of noise thrashing about, and then when it’s gone again the quiet presses sudden and hard against us. We collect ourselves slowly, figuring out where we’ve ended up and where our loved ones are.

The rest of the time we wait for Fate to come rearrange our lives again. We wait – AshleyBelle under the bookshelf, Dominique hanging out of the refrigerator, Marianna’s plaintive voice still sounding through the body-strewn rooms. Eventually the hand of Fate will come through and we will scatter again. We wait, upside down and sprawled on the floor, for something to happen.