When I look up at that dirty little rectangular hole in the eaves of that awful rundown apartment building, I can still see you there. There in your kitchen. Nobody should have to stand there and wash dishes looking out of that dirty little hole. Nobody should have to have nothing prettier to see at day's end than a patch of grass scattered with soggy trash, spit from that dumpster.
You have a mirror, there, at the window. It's one of those round ones that is normal on one side, and then magnifies the hell out of every pore on the other side. You like it there, perched on the window sill, on its little metal easel. You can put on your mascara there. Good light.
The damn floor sags so in that kitchen, that if you laid a marble down, it would roll clear to the other side. It's linoleum- from the forties- I'd wager. No matter how much Bon Ami you take to it, no matter how much you scrub, it just comes up mustard and brown, and black in the cracks.
The living room is always dark. God forbid that the light might shine in and disrupt hockey viewing, by that guy you married. When I come to get you, it's hard to make him out in the shadows. I need to let my eyes adjust. Or not.
The TV peers through the blue haze. He's sucking the tar out of a cigarette; it's down to the nub, the orange fire almost searing his lips. He barely looks away from the screen, hoots too loud about a big body check, and then asks, dumbfounded, "Where you goin'?"
You give him a peck on the cheek and try to act like this is some kind of love story you got going on here.
"Me and Patty are goin' to church. I'll get some cigs on my way back."
He grunts in affirmation. I am halfway out the door. "Bye-eee. Nice talking to ya, Dick!"
You shoot me a look. It's kind of happy and kind of sad, all at the same time. You're stuck with him. And I get that. But you love him, I guess. But you like it when I stick it to him, a little, too. It's all a little weird. Too much for me this morning.
You give me a nervous little hug and you have this funny little laugh. Self-conscious. Like you shouldn't be laughing; like there's nothing to even smile about. I am reminded of how you used to laugh, miles better than this.
You were about fourteen and I, well, I'll do the math...I was about ten.
We lived in Carolina and you were just blossoming. You had that straight, shiny brown hair and pretty legs. I hated you for those legs. And the little ankles and feet, too, while I'm at it. I was a freckled, fuzzy strawberry blonde, and well... I got the O'Leary legs.
"Beef to the heels." That's what Mom's brothers called her lovely gams. And now as then, thanks to Ma and DNA, I claimed the same despicable fame.
You'd always be trying to get shet of me, as the Southerners so aptly put it. Get shet. Well, I didn't want any part of that. You and your friend, Carol, would sneak out of the house so that you could walk down to the beach pavilion, scope out the boys-sans Fuzzy. I'd try to listen for that catch of the latch, on the screen door, toss a quick, "Bye, Mom. Goin'with Mag!' over my shoulder." And then I'd be off.
But you two would start to run when you saw me. All I felt inside was sour and sad, like I had a belly full of vinegar. I'd walk around like some crazed nomad, peering into the shops, hoping to find you there, sipping a coke filled with chipped ice, holding it at arm's length, offering me a sip of that syrupy cold sweetness. I'd look into the dance shacks, too. The music would be pounding with a down beat that made your skull vibrate. The blue smoke would be swirling in the glow of neon. Barefoot over 18's would be smooching and dancing the shag. Sometimes the guy at the door would let you and Carol in, as long as you stayed away from the bar. But no matter how I tried, I hardly ever found you, in those masses of oily coconut flavored bodies, bumping their hips up against one another-- or the pinball machines.
Oh, yeah. I was talking about your laugh. After a couple hours of fruitless reconnaissance, on my part, you'd finally sashay up the driveway, all tan from just those few hours on the beach. All I ever did was burn and peel. And you and Carol would laugh. Tell me how you saw me down in front of the convenience store, how you practically walked right in front of me; I guess I was too busy looking at the latest Beatle article at the magazine stand. Drooling over Paul McCartney, trying to commit his favorite foods to memory, stuff like that; stuff I'd need when we got married some day.
So I had to tear you down, right then and right there. I would tell you that you had a big nose-like Jimmy Durante-that awful looking old man with the fedora and the really big nose. He used to be on some variety show-Tuesday nights. I'd mimic your laugh, ahhhnnnyyyaaayyaaayyaaayyaa. Jimmy would wag his nose for his close up and I knew you could see him there- in your mind's eye.
"You have a Jimmy Durante nose! You laugh like him too! Jimmy Durante! Jimmy Durante!" I would try anything to kill your pretty spirit. Like you killed mine.
But you'd just sniff, look down that nose, and leave; my vengeful imitation not hitting its mark, not one tiny bit as far as I could see.
Well, I lied back then. Your nose is really just fine. And your laugh was a great laugh. All out. A head thrown back, mouth open wide kind of laugh. Better than the one you have now. Where'd you go?
In the light here, outside of the blue haze, I see that your skin is really white. You powder it to look that way...kind of geisha white...beautiful. And you have those huge blue eyes. Open, but frightened. Wary of the world.
You have chopped your hair again. I give myself a mental kick in the ass for not treating you to a proper haircut. It's too short in the front, the layers all hacky. And long in the back. You say that you hate long hair, but Dick likes it. So this way you have a little of both. But it's not the right frame for your pretty, tired face. I'm your sister, I ought to know.
"Hey, Patty. Mind if I grab a smoke before we go to church?"
"Sure, Mags. But preferably not here in the car. You know, when you don't smoke..."
"I know, I know. Not to worry. I'm cool. Just want my cig before I go cold turkey for an hour." You let out that little laugh again.
"I feel bad, really, Mags. But...." I laugh and slam the car door, mid sentence, leaving you there under the maple tree. The only pretty thing in your yard.
Your two fingers point straight up, straddling that butt. I turn on the air and crank up the tunes.... Fleetwood Mac. I am swept away, loving this song, this ballad; I'm singing my heart out, like I'm at Carnegie Hall. You watch me, that little blue cloud hanging around your head, getting more amused. What the hell is she singing? You move a little closer, hear the soul shattering notes vibrating the window glass....
"Can I handle the changing ocean tides?
Can I handle the seasons of my life?
Well I've been afraid of
Changin' cause I
Built my life around you.
But time makes you bolder,
Children get older,
And I'm getting older, too..."
"Oh, damn! Patty! I love that song! Crank it up!" you say, as you lean in close to the window, your two ciggy fingers twirling rapidly, signaling me to hurry up and roll the window down. "Quick! Before it's all over!" I press the button, and the window slides into its pocket. We finish the chorus together,
"...And if you see my reflection
In the snow covered hills.....
Will a landslide bring it down?
And if you see my reflection
In the snow covered hills.....
Will a landslide bring it down?
Oh, ohhhh, will a landslide bring it-
We both tip our heads down on that last word: down. We are Stevie Nicks, albeit a two-headed version. The music hangs there for a moment, right there under that maple tree.
I grab a look at the digital clock.
"Oh, Maggie! We better get our asses in gear!"
"Patttyyyyy! You're going to have to say a few more Hail Marys today."
You drop the butt and grind it senseless into the dirt-with that swivelly action of your toes-with the heel of that outdated shoe lifted so elegantly.
Why the hell do I have to notice these things? They torture me in the night. Like those sandals. The heel is all chunky when the rest of the world is all pointy. Why does that scream sad to me? Or the way I see that you have a little run in your stocking. It starts at the heel, but it's been cut off at the pass with a little pink glop of nail polish. Probably still wet to the touch. Or the way your hand trembles a little as you brush the bangs from your forehead, right before you open the door and get into the car, and we haul ass off to church.
Maybe I fell in love with you again-forgave you for those beach runaways- when you brought me the little wild rose that you found clinging to a fence post in your yard. You were on your way to work and you saw it there, drooping in the noon day sun. You told me that you went back into the house and got a pair of scissors; snipped it from its perch. You put it in a styrofoam cup, at the checkout counter, at the convenience store. Lots of people noticed it there, said it was so pretty. But you knew that it was all for me. St. Theresa had sent its bloom up just for me.
I had just miscarried for the second time and was really down in the dumps. Here I was, one of six girls, the only one who just couldn't get it done. I couldn't seem to do what everyone else had done so effortlessly. They all had a margarita and a romp; a night out dancing and a romp; a quiet night by the fireplace and a ...well you get it. I had to forgo the fun. Bear the tedium, the sad diligence to calendars and temperatures, on my road to motherhood.
And then to lose a baby. Twice. More than I could bear. Or so I thought. You showed up at my door with that pink rose in the styrofoam cup. You told me that according to the St Theresa legend, if a rose bloomed in a place where you never expected it, it meant that a very big wish was about to come true. And I believed because I had nothing left to lose. I held onto your simple faith with a vengeance and prayed that the pink rose would light the way for me. And it did.
The parking lot is filled up and we can see that they've pulled the heavy oak doors closed, a huge wooden slap in the face to latecomers. I have to kind of roll out of the car, my belly swollen so, that it crunches up against the steering wheel. You get out of the passenger side, scoot around the back of the car quick, to help me; like I am a piece of gold about to get away, about to slip and slide down the stream. You put your arm out to steady me and I feel simultaneously treasured and as old as dirt. But it's really such a high. I revel in the ineptitude and helplessness of motherhood. I cup my hand under my sagging gut, widen my waddle, and play this mommy bit up for all its worth. I am on my way into church, but I'm already blessed. I so know that.
The lady inside the door, the "greeter", usually purses her lips at late people. Her head shakes a little, to show her annoyance, and then she assumes a straightened stance, scans the pews for gaps, missing teeth in the gleaming wooden rows. Then she whips her grey permed head back, sniffs and with a quick crick of her head, signals the offenders to follow. It seems to me that she usually chooses the gap farthest to the front, closest to the altar, so the real brunt of the offence can be seen by all; especially by the priest, who flaps his silk robes in preparation for the Mass.
She has levied that look on me, once or twice. But the belly magic prevails, today.
She shoots the look at us, as we enter. We are trying to be as unobtrusive as we can, but a crash of sunlight heralds our entrance. Backlights our tardy souls.
There's that dreaded tip of the head, but then her eyes fall to the lump under my billowy shirt. And then, there's a softening. We almost see a smile.
She tucks us into a pew, close to the back. She waits there until I am seated, like I am an egg that might crack and it is her sworn mission to keep that from happening. She glances around at the others already seated, like she's suddenly important, so special somehow. You look at me and we have to suppress the giggles. We busy ourselves stowing our purses, fussing with our skirts, smoothing them under our butts. She takes two hymnals out of the rack there, on the back of the pew. Like she's the maitre d to God and we are His most esteemed guests. Just fashionably late, today.
I love being pregnant. Makes sour people sweet.
I have to back up. I love being pregnant in those rare minutes when I forget about what might happen. When I really believe for a few crystal moments that this time, this baby will come. That this time, there won't be blood and cramping and life-bending loss. Not this time. That this time I won't have to bear the long tired silence, in my bedroom, the curtains drawn, the phone ringing off the walls. I won't have to lie down with the hollow me, curled up under the covers, wishing the daylight away. Waiting for Chris to come home, so that I can spoon in the hollows of his warm body, tuck my head under the curve of his chin. Just lie there, hear our two hearts beating the same tired drum.
The priest raises his arms like a great white condor-- softly lit by the candlelight. The organ sounds pierce the air, all jubilant and loud, and the whole congregation rises to their feet. You grab my elbow and hoist me up. We stand there, shoulder to shoulder, letting ourselves get swept into this holy current. Feels good to escape your own head for awhile and just be part of this joy.
In here, I can pretend that I'm a confident mom-to-be, who is perusing fabric samples in her spare time, picking just the right shade of yellow to paint the nursery walls, arranging the crib and rocker-just so- in that lovely sunlit room. In here, I can pretend that this pregnancy hasn't got me so holed up in myself that I don't remember how to be a wife, sometimes. Like all of my warm focus isn't going into this growing ball inside of me, all of it. I can pretend that this grabbing fear isn't controlling me. The fear that whispers in my ear, hisses there; says that if I take my focus away from this baby, for just one minute, that it will all fall down.
You can pretend that you have enough money to pay the bills this month. That your oldest son is not spending his drop- out days hanging around with creeps with blood shot eyes, smelling of pot. That your life doesn't stink inside that crappy apartment and that you know that he'll get it together. Stop drinking and smoking and watching hockey-- get a life going for you all.
I know why your hand trembles. Why your shoes are out of date.
But here we are- inside these incensed walls-the pretty painted light shining through. For an hour or so, we'll try to absorb the color and the joy and the hope.
After the rousing entrance song, and opening prayers, we get to happily settle our butts, again, in the hard pew. As a man approaches the podium for the day's readings, I drift away. Sometimes there's more religion in the pews than off the podium.
I watch an old lady, with a jaunty purple beret perched atop her head; she smiles at her old husband, places her hand on his old knee. There's a handsome young boy, all decked out in a Patriots jersey, ready to watch the big game later this afternoon.
But he's here, now. That says something really good about him. His eyes and ears still open to hear. I want my son to be just like that. My son. My heart warms. I watch as a toddler fusses, gets passed from Dad to Mom. She peers over her mom's shoulder at us. I smile at her, hide behind one hand, play a soft little game of peek-a-boo. Her mom cocks her head around to see who's the source of her baby's happy change of mood. She smiles at me, glances at my belly, smiles again. For that moment, I am of a member of her club.
You kick me, with your side swept foot.
Your eyes shoot over there, across the aisle, and then back to me, urging me to follow- in church eye. I can tell by the way you're pressing your lips together, staring down at your toes now, that I'll have to be careful not to laugh. I dare to follow the path of your gaze. Engage in this bit of church eye.
There's a beefy lady still trying to settle in. Her dress is caught in the cleft of her ample butt and she is trying to dislodge it, not so delicately. She finally succeeds in freeing her skirt from the great divide. She nearly sits on a young boy, who can only watch in horror as she descends. He pulls his knees together tight, braces himself. There is a loud creak as she finally lands. He catches my eye and I quickly look away. Your shoulders are shaking. I desperately try to think of something really sad, and I pinch your knee so, that you almost jump, making matters worse.
A bell tinkles and there, by the grace of God, we get to stand. The rumble of all those bodies rising in unison drowns out your giggles. You whack me again, like I had something to do with the whole thing. Like I'm the one who made you laugh.
The organ music rises again, shakes the dust motes in these shafts of painted light. We recognize the chords, and shoot a look at each other, our silliness doused. Our eyebrows fly up in happy half moons. They've chosen our song. We start to sing along, we know it by heart.
"Here I am Lord.....
Is it I, Lord.
I have heard you calling in the night.....
I will go, Lord....
If you need me.....
I will hold your people in my heart."
Neither of us is very religious, in the strict sense of the word. But when we get to sing this song, we are lifted up somehow. We don't know exactly why. Maybe it's the words, so gentle. Or the notes so achy. Whatever. It makes our souls fly, makes our eyes water.
You see my tears starting to pool, ready to spill. I still feel kind of silly every time it happens. But happy, too, that I have been touched like this. I sneak a look at you. Your eyes glisten, right along with mine. You pinch my hand as it hangs by my side. When we sing this song, we know that someone is watching over us. That nothing bad can possibly happen.