Pieces of Me

I am ten and I am crying, because I am scared and my stomach hurts. My mother is pale and stern, standing before the lacquered mahogany door to my bedroom. Her hand rests on the old glass doorknob, which is cut like a faceted diamond. She is yelling at me, but I don’t know what she is saying. I know that she wants me to stop crying, to stop being like this. My father enters the room and crosses in front of her. He kneels in front of me, and asks me why I’m upset. My mother doesn’t move from the doorway. I tell him I don’t know, and I cry harder. My words catch in clutches and the back of my throat tightens and burns, and it’s hard for me to talk. He kneels down and he puts his arms around me, and he hugs me until my diaphragm stops spasming. The palm of his hand rests on the crown of my head, and I feel mostly safe — but not entirely, because I think that we are both somehow betraying my mother, and that I will suffer for his kindness.

***

My husband and I are sitting together on the couch in the beginnings of a Sunday morning. We are in a small town in the Catskills, and we are both reading from books that we’ve purchased from the small bookstore in the town center. Birds are chirping and trilling somewhere outside the house. My husband gets up to look for the feathery source, and calls me to our front door. A large, gray bird trills in the snowball hydrangea bush near our front steps, and we watch him from behind the panes of glass. He — or she, we’re not sure — is twitching and fussing at a nest secured in the boughs. We had noticed the nest earlier in the winter, and assumed it was unoccupied, or left behind from a pregnant spring. Still, we left it untouched. Places like the Catskills lend themselves to letting nature lie fallow and run its course — trees upturned and rotting in clearings; the bones of animals left to whiten in the sun in undiscovered places; groupings of twigs and pillars of stones that give meaning to other builders in their fragile construction. A second bird alights outside our door, and the nested bird puffs up and trills. We make a joke about summer rentals and latecomers to BnB websites. Are they together? I ask my husband. Or is he an intruder? How do they know who to pick, who to reproduce and nestle and settle with in the small space of life? I think. How do any of us decide?

***

I often find myself explaining things like air-conditioning wall units and pay phones and cathode ray tube televisions and rotary dials and hot rollers and flip calendars and metal Rolodexes and suntan lotions that offer no greater protection than SPF 8 and crank windows in large American cars and typewriters and transistor radios and the gasoline shortage and the whole notion of UHF and VHF to my children, but not for very long, because then they’re off to something else. I sit in the hyphen of space that separates the telling and the next moment of our lives — and wonder what will happen when my generation is gone, and no one remembers these things anymore. I decide that I’m just alligator-wrestling with my own mortality in those moments, personifying myself in cast-off objects that end up oddly stacked together on thrift-store shelves.

***

My husband and I are planning a trip to Big Sur this summer, to celebrate our twentieth anniversary. We haven’t been to Big Sur in more than fifteen years. I was young and lithe and smooth when we last visited. We were transplanted newlyweds living in San Francisco then, trying to make some sense of California, and where — and if — we belonged. We stayed at the Ventana Inn, a cliffside resort overlooking the Pacific Ocean, and brought along a camera that neither of us were particularly skilled in using. An unseen hotel employee laid a fire for us before we returned to our room each night. I was embarrassed at such a gesture. Who was I to deserve such labors?  I felt uncomfortable about the exertion and the transference of energy, about the wood breaking down and the ashes that remained, just so I could have misappropriated comfort and luxury. We stayed for several days, and I often lay naked on the white, white pillows that adorned the hotel room’s gargantuan bed. It was too big for us. We hadn’t grown into our lives — or our marriage — yet. One morning during our stay, my husband grabbed the camera, stood over my naked form on the white, white bed and asked to photograph me. I complied, denying my beauty, even as he sighed at the sight of me. After he shot several photos, we lay together and looked at the images on the digital screen at the back of our Canon Rebel. My husband gripped the black case and gasped at my beauty, eager to show me what he had seen. I waved away his love with criticisms of my skin tone, my lopsided breasts, and my soft double chin that emerged when I propped my head up awkwardly on those white, white pillows. So young, so embarrassed, so undeserving. He refused to delete the photos, even when I protested. We left Big Sur and grew older and moved away, and hid the photographs somewhere in the digital folds of our hard drive, once our children were old enough to navigate the computer. This morning, before the children woke up, I wondered aloud where those pictures had gone. My husband jokingly asked if I’d like to have large matte prints made of them. Yes, I said — but just the one where I’m lying in bed looking away from you, I said, and you can really see me. Yes, he said. I remember that one. And he smiled at me, and we were still sort of young — but we are mostly glad to be this old now.

 

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