by Moshe Dann (August 2013)
Around the time that the ticking in Wendy's biological clock boomed louder, she began to feel that her body was a receptacle of doom. It wasn't so much the physical changes that were occurring inside her, but an unfathomable emptiness, sharpened by years of living alone and honed by lovers who left her without regret.
If I'd married any of them, she thought, watching a spider crawl across her web in a dingy corner of the ceiling, I'd be even more miserable; at least I have my freedom and no one to tell me what to do. At least it had seemed that way, the prospect of a solitary life ingrained, now clearer, as if she had only to recognize and embrace that awareness, and listen to that bitter unsacred oracle.
She looked around her small shabby apartment, a broken kitchen cabinet door severed from its rusted hinges propped on its side against the wall, dishes piled in the leaking sink. Socks, her dog, was curled up on the tattered sofa, two black paws tucked under his white furry neck. The bare walls were dotted with prints and photographs, an old museum poster of Degas ballerinas covered a large hole, her bedroom cluttered with books and newspapers. In the bathroom, the grimiest reminder of her life, towels smelled of overuse, worn porcelain gloomed, as if struck by a disease.
Stretching her legs, she pushed back hair that had fallen over her face and thought about an old lover, Caps, who had asthma. When Caps would get an attack she would rub his chest, feeling his coarse breath with her hands. Prematurely bald, he seemed in perpetual motion, sniffing at things, pulling his mouth into a smile. She remembered the different hats he wore — berets, floppy brimmed, and a red one with the word “Love” sewn on it. Was I really in love with him? she closed her eyes. Was he in love with me? She wondered what had become of him, traveling around the world, trying to fill himself with as many new experiences as he could. He lived like the music he played on the piano, not with much technique, but a passion that stormed inside and carried him far away.
“Gotta go,” he would say suddenly, as half-asleep she pushed her head against him. Men, she sighed, watching him dress and said nothing. His sounds in the bathroom echoed in the first light of morning, the toilet's flush, the whimper of the door closing softly as he left. Holding his pillow, breathing his smell, she'd wanted to ask him where he was going, and why, questions that fumbled in awkward silences between them, like hungry beggars with no place to go.
Curling a leg underneath, she remembered when her rhythms of life were still sharp and vibrant, when she was less careful and less afraid. She shivered thinking of Maurice, a tall dark drummer from Argentina, who pounded his rhythm on her and any other surface that he touched, a drum between his legs, beating wildly with his long fingers a rhythm that raged in him. Black on white, she thought, watching him sleep beside her as she sang softly to herself in the darkness, songs he could not hear. He wound his arms around her like ropes, pulling her out to sea and then, just when she thought she might hold on, set her adrift. Drowning, she'd begged him to stay.
“You can’t have a relationship!” he accused. “You choke me with your demands!” She watched him dance across the room and prayed that he wouldn't hit her. She held her hands together in front of her. “I'm afraid of you,” he stared at her like a child awakened suddenly.
“Why?” Her voice hardly sounded amidst the crash of waves.
“Afraid of women,” he mumbled, measuring the distance, the veins in his neck glistening, holding the edge of the chair.
“That's why you need to possess them; so they won't possess you?” She tried to put things in order, as if it could ever be.
“Women. They make you weak. I need to be free.” His eyes glared in the hollow light.
She drew back, covered herself with her coat, relieved when he left in the dismal morning fog. She watched him walk down the street, her father’s grim face sneered back at her in the window; he would not have approved. Not my fault, she pleaded to the vacant courtyard, wind whirling in the trees, a silhouette of dreams.
She'd given up trying to explain her life to her parents. No, she hadn't found anyone; yes, she was looking. Yes and No, swirling around her as if there were reasons for anything, answers without questions, words spinning out of control. A stain of exhaustion.
Pushing back on the sofa, she rubbed her belly, deeper where she could not reach. Steam clouded her glasses as she sipped a cup of herbal tea, warming her hands from the cup she held close to her breasts. Her hand trembled as she sipped the tea. A cold draft from the window, she thought, wiping her nose on her sleeve. Her dog, Socks lay next to her; she patted the dog's head as he nuzzled closer. I love Socks. He's all I have. Isn't that enough? He raised one ear and looked at her.
She raised the half empty cup to her lips. “Ugh,” she spit and threw it across the room, watching it shatter against the kitchen shelves, splattering like wet leaves across the floor. Autumn, she hardly remembered, except as a sign of approaching winter, the smell of rain in the air. She was fifteen, running barefoot through the empty park near her home just before a storm. It was almost winter and she wanted to feel the damp grass between her toes, clouds of breath caught in the air, a rattle of thunder, her cry as she'd slipped and fallen in the mud.
“Mud,” they called her when she walked through the doorway. “You're crazy,” her father shouted. Her mother wiped her hands on her apron. “You can't come in like that…” she sputtered as Wendy's footprints marked the polished floor.
“What are you doing?” her father stood aside. They couldn't understand her sense of freedom, her strength in that woman-to-be, alone with no one to protect her but herself.
“We care about you,” her mother had said, words drifting around her like a bad odor. “We love you.” She looked into their eyes wondering what they meant. By the time she went away to college, she stopped measuring the distances between them. Visits became less frequent. Wendy remembered her last visit home, sitting at the kitchen table.
“Why can't you talk to us?” her mother asked. “Why can't you let things go?”
“Why do you have to be so critical all the time?” her father added.
Wendy wanted to scream. “Truth, for God's sake!” her rage backed up and suddenly burst. She stared at them with clenched fists, unable to speak.
“Just be straight with me,” she finally gritted her teeth. They looked at her as if she had just announced that the world was coming to an end, or that she was pregnant.
“Honey,” her mother spoke calmly, “we love you.”
She was infuriated. “You want me to become vulnerable again,” she thought, “to come back home and be drowned. I won't give you the chance again. Love? Bullshit! Talk about misery and pain! Talk about how you abandoned me, how you wiped out my feelings, destroyed my hopes. Talk about REAL love! Talk about anything REAL!”
Their voices were soft, comforting. They were so sure of themselves. “Why make such a big thing about everything?” Mountains. Molehills. What difference does it make anymore? It’s all the same. Stretch fits all sizes. Don't get fat! Who cares?
“I NEED TRUTH!” she wanted to shout at them. “You can't hear me,” she said quietly looking down at her hands and then into their eyes. Her head began to throb, a hook in her throat. You scratched out my eyes! But I had other eyes, eyes that were inside, eyes that you couldn't touch.
Sounds began to fade as she remembered being punished for something she'd done as a child. “Hold me,” she'd cried as they shut her in her room and locked the door. The sound of the key turning, like a judge's gavel. “Listen, please listen,” she begged. “I'm sorry” she banged the door with her fists until she could no longer feel the pain.
“We love you,” she heard them say as they left. “When you calm down, we'll let you come out.”
“No, no,” she pleaded. “Please don't leave me. Please come back!” But there was no answer. She lay on her back banging the door with her feet in a steady rhythm; soldiers walking into battle, she thought, the path she'd take to run away from home.
“Stop that noise,” her mother insisted.
“Not fair,” she pounded harder, “not fair,” as the door shook with her rage.
“If you don't stop that right now,” her mother threatened, “you'll stay longer.” Wendy put her ear to the door. Perhaps they were standing on the other side, so close, so far away. She wanted to hear a rustle of clothing, their feet shifting, breathing not her own.
She looked through the keyhole, but the key was still in the lock. She threw her clothes on the floor and stamped on them. Through the window she watched other children playing outside. She wanted to be with them but knew they didn't want her. Crawling under her bed she chanted, “I love you, I'm sorry. I love you, I'm sorry…” as shadows and light play tag in the dust of her shame.
Socks nestled into her. He hardly moved as she put her hands around his neck and squeezed as tightly as she could. He struggled for a moment, a violent spasm, full of trust, and then stopped, leaving a wet stain of saliva on the couch.
“I love you,” she said stroking his head and weeping. “I love you.”
For a few moments, he didn't move. Frightened by what she'd done Wendy turned him over. “I'm sorry. I didn't mean…oh, God forgive me!” She picked him up and shook him. “No. Please!” He squirmed, responding to her pleas and began to breathe again. She took his head in her hands and kissed him. “Oh, thank you, thank you.” He licked her fingers and then walked unsteadily to a corner.
The phone rang. Wendy grabbed the receiver. “Hello.”
“Wendy, dear, how are you?”
“Mama, I feel like I'm going crazy.”
“I know. I feel that way too sometimes. Your father …”
“No mama, I feel like something's happening to me. I don't know what it is.”
“No mama. Not yet. I'm too young.”
“Not getting any younger,” she chided.
“Oh for godssake will you shut up and listen for a minute. I almost killed my dog.”
“Good riddance. What do you need him for? A burden… you should have a man.”
“Mama, you don't understand. I love him.”
“That's the trouble…”
“Oh damnit, stop judging me. Stop trying to figure out my life for me. I almost destroyed something that I love because I was angry; not against him, against me, and you, and the whole world.”
“Me? What did I ever do to you?”
“You don't hear me, mama,” Wendy pleaded softly. “You can't.”
“I don't like to hear your suffering. You think that's easy?”
“No. But it’s not about pain. You just can't see who I am.” Wendy took a deep breath. She listened for a response, but there were only scratchy sounds of electrical interference.
“Mama?” she began to cry softly to herself, “I need you and I'm scared of that. I'm so alone and I'm afraid to tell you… Mama?”
She listened to the silence with a new boldness. “Mama? Maybe you need me too?” She waited, the sound of her heart crumbling in her ears.
“Well,” she heard her mother's voice. “Why don't you come over, maybe you could help me clean up a bit…”
“Hire a maid!” Wendy slammed the receiver. Socks wagged his tail. Trembling she took the leash from a hook near the door. “Let's go,” she slapped her leg and walked outside. For a moment she stood in the chilly breeze, as Socks rushed headlong into the garden. He looked back, tilted his head as if curious, or grateful, found the right place to piss and then ran off. Even this makes the world possible, she thought and waited for him to return. Perhaps I'll buy myself something special. Today I'll be graceful.
When the old lady who lived next to the garden shouted at her for letting Socks trample the flowers, Wendy smiled. “Bless you,” she said, leaning over and inhaling the exquisite aroma that surrounded her. Taking off her shoes, she felt the mud ooze between her toes, an intimacy with earth, things living in themselves. “And bless me.”
The author is a writer and journalist living in Jerusalem.
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