November 27, 2009

the year i learned nothing and met no one

            “Don’t open your eyes until I say to,” Mrs. Santil whispered into my ear. Not only did I keep those peepers clamped shut tight, I turned my head as far it would away. I held my breath.

            “Don’t forget to breathe now,” she instructed, “You’re turning purple.” I exhaled partly and saved the rest for later. Her chair scraping on the tile startled me. I still didn’t open my eyes but I felt my eyebrows raising the iron curtains.  I felt her hand on my wrist and was surprised at her firm grip behind that treasure map leather skin. I felt strange plucks on my hand, but ultimately more fear than pain. I could hear the wind through her nostrils, or were they mine?

            “Alright. Looks like this hand is going to have to go,” she sighed.
My eyes flew open and my left hand was in the air in no time. Mrs. Santil pushed her glasses up on the bridge of her nose, a smile pulling the left side of her mouth. She couldn’t totally move the other side of her mouth because, my mother told me, Mr. Santil was a brute. I didn’t know what that would’ve meant for her mouth but the hushed way my mother told me suggested that I was not to pry further. Mrs. Santil said it was because if she let her mouth do what it wanted it would only tell lies and obscenities. So she didn’t let it. I knew it was a far-fetched tale but the divot stretching the right peak of her cupid’s bow served as a possibility.
            My hand was fine. It looked like the left side of her mouth liked to play tricks too.
            “Go on home, Lily, and bring these Tupperware for your mother please.” She presented me with the saucers and I bounded off the porch, waving behind me.

            “And don’t make friends with wild animals, little one,” she added as an afterthought, like a lollipop after a dentist visit.  The pricks were little white puckers of barely broken skin, the spikes now missing. True, I had barely felt it when Mrs. Santil snatched them out with chopsticks but I still felt the resurfacing sensation of blood rushing from my face to the rest of my body.

            This was the one memory I did not offer to share when we gathered at the cemetery. When the young preacher looked around the circle I looked at my folded hands instead. It was pure coincidence that I came, not out of a feeling of obligation or a need to remember. I already did remember, maybe for no other reason than I just had a good memory. Mrs. Santil’s son thanked us for coming. He stood up hastily to express it. He looked about to throw up or fall down momentarily. I didn’t stick around to see which.
I stood in the cemetery parking lot next to my car, my purse on the hood. I kicked off the grassy dirt clumps stuck on my heels. I found a sleeve of cigarettes in my glove box and decided that now was an inappropriately Hollywood moment to light one up. So I did. Because I appreciate good cinema.
I don’t smoke, but I always keep a couple cigarettes around for cinematic effect at any given moment. They live in a silver and enamel cigarette case my boyfriend found in a thrift shop when he was my boyfriend. Don’t worry-- he wasn’t encouraging me to start smoking, although I felt that it did help a lot.

           “It’s awful cold out here for lady to be so cold.” It was Mrs. Santil’s son, giving me his best Marlon Brando. That’s his name- Mrs. Santil’s son- although other people call him Danny. Mrs. Santil’s son is trying to be cute, I think.

            “Start over,” I say, handing him a lighter for his cigarette. He takes the cigarette from my mouth instead and takes one long drag and stamps it out. He pulls a cigarette from his breast pocket and places it between my lips. He lights it and says nothing for a however long it takes to shuffle a deck of cards. It makes me uncomfortable because I just really really hope he doesn’t start crying or something.
          “You’re alright,” is the sound I make when I push the smoke from my mouth. I say it again.

           “I’m all right,” Mrs. Santil’s son repeats, separating each syllable. “I’m more than alright. I’m the Easter Parade.”

I stared at him. I gave him my best Clint Eastwood. When I was 6 and he was 7, our mothers conspired our endless quarrels with a plot they both probably believed to be supremely precious, but I found harrowing and unfair. The Easter of that year, Mrs. Santil’s son was dressed in a full bunny costume. A big brown fuzzy onesie complete with whiskers and nose mask. What did my mother dress me up as but a carrot, naturally. It was some bizarro Halloween. He chased me half hopping, half sprinting the whole length of the Easter Parade, inching its way up the one main road in our town. The carrot costume didn’t allow for a very long stride. I finally ran smack into Mrs. Santil’s legs at Cinder Road and begged her to rear her son. She lifted me high up and told Danny she was saving me for rabbit stew and that set him right in the other direction. Another memory I didn’t care to repeat to some moon-faced churchgoers.
That he remembered it and chose now to reference it, well who was I to hold a grudge. Danny shifted his feet and noticed the car I was leaning on.

            “You gonna replace this steel deathtrap?” He asked.
            “New cars are expensive.”
            “You can use my mom’s. She won’t be going anywhere, I suppose, anymore.” He leaned with me, trying to appear nonchalant or either just tired.
            “Driving a dead woman’s car is bad luck, isn’t it?”
He didn’t even balk. “Not if you’re wearing your seat belt. Besides, this one’s got some bad mojo anyhow.”
            “Don’t trash talk about my car’s mojo,” I said, flicking ash at him.
            “Well, it got radio at least?”

I leaned in the driver side window, which you could just push down if your fingers were able to pry through the crack of the frame. At the risk of appearing unladylike I decided better of it and opened the door instead and sat down to fiddle with the tuner. I switched on an AM station that was playing static. Danny tangoed with the antenna until it gave us either Tom Waits or Smashing Pumpkins. It couldn’t decide which.
A man in a khaki members only jacket approached Danny and me. I saw him walking from the church towards us.
            “Who’s that dude?” I asked.
            “That dude is Bob.” Danny said to Bob.
            “I don’t know anybody named Bob.”
            “I do. He’s coming right at us now.”
            “How do you know that Bob?”
            “We live together.”

Bob was approaching fast. It had started to rain but it was wimpy rain. From under the streetlight, it moved like something colder. It fell like it was in no rush to wet the Earth. Maybe that’s why Bob seemed to get here in a hurry.

            “Bob, this is Lily. She was my mother’s daughter,” Danny said, rotating his wrist between us in an arc of embers.
            “Hello Lily,” Bob said without smiling. “It’s good to meet you.”
            “It’s nice to meet you too, Bob,” I said on an exhale.
Instead of shaking my hand, Bob chose to wave at me standing just a couple feet in front of us, and then I seemed to know who Bob is.
            “You wanna head back soon?” Bob asked Danny.
            “In a bit. If you want, take my keys and go back to the house, I’ll catch up with you.”

This seemed to satisfy Bob who did just that. I shifted in my seat so my legs dangled out the doorway. He made it to end of the block before I made a peep.

            “That was weird. What you said,” I told Danny.
            “Well. That’s how she felt. And it is her day, isn’t it?”
            “Yeah, but,” I started. “I don’t know.”
            “She told me that the Gods have a strange sense of humor. That I was what she got when she resented that she didn’t give birth to a daughter instead.”
            “Yikes,” I said under my breath. “I didn’t know that.”
            “Well yeah, why would you have? But I thought you should. I want you to know.”
            “Okay.” I didn’t really like knowing it. It was a bad argument about a good thing. “But you are hers. I’m not.”
            “No,” Danny replied, after stamping out his cigarette. “You’re hers too.”

I said nothing and watched the rain in the streetlight beam, like that’s where the mist was coming from. I imagined us in the produce aisle as brussel sprouts being watered.
             “You wanna give me a ride?” He shrugged his blazer further up on his shoulders and patted his pockets.
            “Sure. Where you heading?” I unlocked the passenger door and he hopped in.
            “Your mom’s house,” he answered, grinning. 
            I shook my head. “Dick.”

It was a ten-minute drive to Mrs. Santil’s house. I took the long way on purpose. Danny probably had just arrived in town just this morning and I’ll bet he didn’t make a sightseeing itinerary. I turned the radio off and the wipers on.

            “So where’s your Bob?” Danny asked, looking at himself in the mirror.
            “No Bob. There was a David. And there was a Ben. But no Bobs.” 
            “Not good enough for you, huh?”
            “Not something enough,” I mumbled, “I guess.”
We were quiet for some time. Enough time for me to drive up Main Street and slow just a little. I wanted to show him how everything looks the same. I knew he wouldn’t feel the same way about it, especially now. It’s important to notice these differences though. To see what you knew and compare it to what you now know.

It’s true, her son wasn’t there when Mrs. Santil went. I don’t know that she wanted him to be. She did not want him to see her humanity, I imagine. I pictured a letter waiting, or else some video message or some big family heirloom waiting for him in her will. But when it fell to me to sweep up all her belongings and distribute them accordingly, there was no will, no letters, no photographs. 
There was only Mrs. Santil. The reading glasses on the nightstand. The talcum powder and perfume bottles and tubes of lipstick lining the vanity. Ammunition. Magazine subscriptions and silk scarves. The lady without the woman. She had an old rotary telephone that she would call me on, saying “Lily, why don’t you hop on over to my pad!” and then laugh hysterically as if it’s the first time anyone’s said a joke. Whenever I came over, she always offered me cake.

            “Do I seem older to you?” Danny asked with a half chuckle that suggested he didn’t really want to know.
            “No, you don’t look older,” I said on reflex. I had not seen Danny in more than a year, but all things considered, I’m not about to deny him that fishing trip.
            “No, I mean do I seem older to you?”
            “Oh. I don’t know. I don’t think so. I haven’t seen you in a year.”
            “More than that! Yeah, it’s definitely been more… than that. You’ve had a birthday pass recently, haven’t you?” His eyes flickered.
            “Every year.”
            “I’m sorry,” he said sheepishly. “I didn’t even call. Jeez, who do I think I am!”
            “I know. You’re very busy and important, I understand. Fighting the man, being the man, jet-setting from city to city and whatnot,” I teased. “Meeting Bob.”
            “Oh Bob.”

We rounded the corner and I pulled up to Mrs. Santil’s house. The flood light on the garage door was lit and a sleek sedan parked in the driveway. There was a faint flickering through the windows. Bob was sitting on the porch and when he saw us get out of the car, he went into the house.

I didn’t know Danny had keys to the house still. We climbed the stairs to the front door and Danny took my coat like a real live gentleman, humming to himself. Mrs. Santil was fond of absent-minded humming as well but I didn’t think it spooky or anything, the very opposite in fact. If Danny felt I was more her daughter than he was her son, then was I his as well? He draped it over a tarp-covered armchair. I had put plastic over most the large furniture already to prepare for the freeze. They looked strange in this dim, like sleeping beasts.

The glow was coming from the kitchen, along with a sweet strange smell like grenadine and sulfur. Danny turned on one table lamp and whistled soft and low. He took to the parameters of the living room, placing each photograph on the mantle face down. Naturally he was in most of them, in varying stages of his life. After unceremoniously leaping onto the couch and jumping onto each cushion, to the love seat, armchair and landing gracefully on the solid oak coffee table, he grinned at me and spread his arms wide and tall. Magician arms.

            “Remember that game, ‘The floor is made of lava?’” Danny asked. “I always won.”
            “Yes. Because you are an elegant lady,” I affirmed, “and I am as graceful as an otter.”
            “They’re good at swimming. But not in lava. No one swims in lava,” He said, spinning to survey the house. “C’mere.”

I peeled off my heels and climbed up onto the coffee table. “Now what?”
            “Now you aren’t swimming in lava. I saved you.” We smiled at each other and stood there for a moment. “I forgot to ask—how awful of me!” Danny interrupted, “How is your mom doing?”
            “I guess I don’t know. The last time I saw her, you were still beating me at ‘The floor is made of lava.’ If you run into her, let her know…” I couldn’t finish the sentence. Rather, I could not think of what to say. She took the words from me every time.
            “Oh. I’m sorry, Lily,” Danny said directly into my eyes. I liked how he could do that. “That’s really shitty.”
            “Not as shitty as it could be. Not as shitty as having to put everything in boxes and tarp over all the furniture and  all the shit that’s left behind when--”
I sucked in sharp and shut my eyes tightly until white boxes appeared behind my eyelids and kept them shut until they went away. Until I felt Danny’s hand on my neck and my face on his corduroy blazer.
            “Stop,” he whispered into my hair. “Hey,” he kept repeating, “Hey hey hey. Don’t forget to breathe now.”
            “Danny?” A voice from the kitchen. Bob’s voice.
            “Gimme a sec,” Danny called back.

I blew air out in small puffs, not wanting to mess up Danny’s jacket. He took my hand and hopped off the coffee table, helping me down as well. Without my heels, he was a full head taller than me. That’s something you don’t notice standing on top of a coffee table, I guess. He led me to the kitchen and there was that sweet smell again. I looked at the black and white linoleum pattern on the floor, childish suddenly.

I looked up and there on the Formica table was a six-inch white frosted cake with birthday candles, lit and dripping. And there was Bob standing next to the table, smiling or something like it. And Danny, smiling at Bob, pecked me on the cheek. And the white boxes appeared again in the space between us.  

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