Monday, June 11, 2018

More from Wite-Out




From my second book, in which I continue my long affair with Brooklyn while marrying Oakland.


1998

And here we are in Oakland, exiled from Berkeley. No one wants to rent to a single mother in the dot com boom. This is the only place I could find—a one-bedroom in a six-plex, with one closet and a coin op laundry in a dirt-floor basement. I don’t know anyone who lives in Oakland. I had to beg the weird landlord to let us live here. I cried when I signed the lease. How many times over the last fourteen years did I see landlords practically begging my feckless husband to sign a lease, no credit check required, because he’s a tall, white, blue-eyed man with a deep voice and an air of entitlement?

When we first moved to Berkeley from New York two years ago, I was in heaven— all the pretty gardens and farmer’s markets, and my new job.

But then I noticed the smug liberalism and the whiteness. “Where are all the people?” I asked Andrew. Someone told us we should go to Oakland.

Except for working as a waitress at Mavis the Pie Queen in 1986, I’d hardly ever been to Oakland. One Friday we drove to a Vietnamese place called Le Cheval. The huge dining room was filled with all kinds of people. Everyone smiled at Isabel as I carried her to our table near the bar. “Beautiful baby,” said a man in a Raiders cap. “Pretty girl,” said a middle-aged woman in a Tupac T-shirt.

“Oh!” I said to Andrew. “Here’s where the people are.”
--
In the new place, I sat in my only arm chair, surrounded by unpacked boxes, with Isabel in my lap. I paged through The New Yorker, homesick.

“Talk about that,” she said when she saw a picture that she liked.

I nursed her and put her down and went into the kitchen. I thought she was asleep until I heard her murmuring “Mamamamamama.” I went in to check on her. She was wide awake. She looked amazed. 

“I was just talking about you!” she said—as if it were a coincidence that I walked in just then—as if she’d conjured me.
--
Business trip to New York. First time I’ve been back since Andrew and I split up. I had to pay for Isabel’s ticket because she's more than two years old, no longer what they call “a lap infant.” But she spent the whole trip in my lap, playing and crying and nursing and sleeping, and I stared at her face for hours.

We stayed with Leah and Young in their Brooklyn brownstone. Now we’ve got kids and his career is hot and we’re all confused by my new status: single and living far away. I can’t be as helpful to them as I used to be. Oh, and I have a new boyfriend.

Kneeling in Young’s parlor in Brooklyn in my bathrobe, I bent over Isabel to change her diaper. A dog barked outside, and she said, “Doggies say woof!” I kissed her. “That’s right, that’s right!” I said. “And what do mommies say?” 

In that instant I was almost afraid—I knew her answer would tell me what kind of mother I was.  

She smiled and said, “Mommies say, ‘It’s okay, it’s okay.’”

Cause everything will be okay.

Tom and Young were in the kitchen whispering. I called out to them, “What’s the latest gossip?”

Silence. I stood up with the baby and turned toward them.

“Well,” Tom said, “you’re pretty much it.”

Me? Who would have expected it?
--
Home again. Office politics is a kind of hell. In the New York office, I worked so independently. I don’t know how to play the game here, though I know how to get things done. I seem to be caught in a Bermuda triangle of managers who hate each other. One of them lied about me last week! I found out when Doris in human resources took me aside to warn me. “They smile in your face and stab you in the back.” What am I supposed to do with this information? I’ve been raised to turn the other cheek, but how does that work at work? You’re supposed to promote yourself to get promoted here, and I’m not good at that.

I took a day off to go on a field trip with Isabel and the other preschoolers. On the bus to Crab Cove I was so happy. Isabel sat on my lap all the way there, and Grace leaned on my arm. On the way home I let Grace sit on my lap. This is the kind of work I’m good at.

--
Isabel is at Russell Street. We call the houses by their street names. Much better than saying “Mommy’s house” and “Daddy’s house.”

Watching “The 400 Blows,” made the year I was born. “Each time I cried, my father would imitate me on his fiddle.”
--
 
Letter from Young today. The kids, the art world, travel, marriage, parties, and famous friends, replacing good old me.


That day, nine years ago, when he called me at my office on 42nd Street to tell me that Leah had been raped and left for dead, half-naked, her arm broken, hair matted and tangled, pants hanging over the edge of the bridge. It was Mother’s Day.

A homeless man gave her his shirt. Someone called the police. They took her to the hospital.

“You’re the first person I called,” he said, and I was surprised. He had so many friends.

She and Young were on shaky ground then, relationship-wise—she’d called an old boyfriend first, but he didn’t answer. Then she called Young, who brought her home from the hospital. She sat in a kitchen chair while he painstakingly untangled her hair. A big, sad job.

The police showed her binders filled with pictures of men who might have done it. She didn’t see her attacker among them, and she didn’t listen to the cop who suggested this or that Black man might be the one.

She was on her bike on the way to her waitressing job. She said hi as she passed him. He came after her and hit the back of her head with a pipe.

It was around that time that I started to cook for them once a week. I made cheesy potato casserole and chicken with cream sauce and capers—things she wouldn’t usually eat. She could live for days on raspberries and the occasional Power Bar; she was already famous, in our little world, for her steely will, her mighty but delicate femininity, her lack of body fat, and her hair.
--
Not long after the attack, I was shopping at Pearl Paint. I had started making tiny paintings when I couldn’t write, and I needed a tube of titanium white. Real artists like my husband and Young and Leah didn’t use much white, but I depended on it. I was looking at the most expensive blue—ultramarine—when I overheard two guys in the next aisle gossiping.

One guy said, “I heard it was a gang rape.”

They were talking about Leah. Everyone knew Young and Leah.

The other guy said, excitement in his voice: “Yeah, five black guys.”
I could almost hear them grinning. 
But this was all in their minds. It wasn’t a gang rape. It was just one guy. And he was Black, but Leah never emphasized that. 

I left the store without my paint.

--
At home when I’m alone, I read furiously, and write in my notebook.

“Chaos, then, is not a scene of disorder – it is a scene of emerging order.” Edward Casey’s The Fate of Place.

“Anyone who likes to think with a pen in his hand is a writer.” Michel Leiris

And anyone who thinks about her losses as much as I do—tries to understand and document them—is either crazy or a writer. 
-- 
To New York for work. First time I’ve ever been away from Isabel for so long. I’m still nursing her, and I didn’t know if my milk would dry up on the trip. But I have plenty of it, and I squeeze it out of my breasts when I shower here.

Tonight Leah and Young had their weekly dinner party. Leah looked at my chest and said, “Your boobs must be ready to burst.” She suggested I nurse her newest baby, Eva (after years of anorexia, Leah suddenly can’t seem to stop getting pregnant, and somehow she’s thinner than ever). She handed Eva to me. Would this baby take to me? Eva began to suckle so furiously that we laughed. She nursed for a long time while gripping her mother’s hair. The babies, the milk, us—Leah’s hair now—it was like a dream. The guys kept passing plates down the long wooden table in our direction, trying not to stare.
--
Visited Knopf to negotiate paperback reprint rights for the letters of Wallace Stevens. The next day I came up to Boston on the train. Bob told me to try to meet Jorie in Cambridge but I couldn’t schedule it. We talked on the phone, though, and I swear I heard her famous hair brushing the receiver.

Saturn, Jorie said, is now finishing its dark transit.

“Are you a Taurus like me?”

“Yes,” I said. “How did you guess?” Poet’s intuition, I suppose.

“Have the last few years been hard for you?”

“Incredible,” I said, too ashamed to say more than that. I’d have to talk about Icarus to make my situation understood in Harvard Square, and that would be inaccurate and bathetic; Icarus was a classical boy, not a girl from Dorchester.

“Me too,” she said. “This has been such a hard time.”

She has a student who’s the daughter of the Queen’s astrologer, so she gets top quality transatlantic advice about the zodiac.

“Dame ________" [I didn't catch the name] "says things will get better for us soon.”

Us? Us? Who is this “us”?

--

In New York again for work. Young and Leah wanted to go to an opening, so I volunteered to mind all the kids (L & H watched Isabel for me today while I went to meetings with publishers in Manhattan). 

On the way home from Manhattan I heard church bells playing “My Way.” That could only mean one thing: Sinatra was dead.

When I got to Park Slope I turned the radio on and started cooking mac ’n cheese for the kids. I fed them and then I put them to bed. Then I raided the cabinets and found a dusty bottle of bourbon. I sat next to the radio, sipping and listening to the sounds of Sinatra mingled with reggae blasting from a car downstairs.

Leah and Young got home around eleven. Leah went up to check on the kids and went to bed. Young stayed up to drink and talk with me. After an hour, Eva started crying, and Leah called down to Young. “Just a minute,” he said, and he finished his story about the time his mother threw a bunch of hundred-dollar bills at him during an argument. 

“Young!” Leah yelled. 

I’d never heard her raise her voice before.

He went upstairs. I went to bed. But I couldn’t sleep. I got up to look at books I’d bought at Gotham Book Mart. From Gregory Corso’s “Marriage”—published the year my parents were married—

            and everybody else is married! All the universe married but me!

            Ah, yet well I know that were a woman possible as I am possible
            then marriage would be possible-
--

Back home. Too hard to be away from Isabel. We clung to each other all day. At night when she was falling asleep she said in the dark, “Mom?”

“Yes?”

“Do you remember that time we went to Crab Cove and you let Grace sit on your lap on the bus?”

“Yes.”

“I didn’t like that.”

“Oh, I didn’t know that. Thank you for telling me.”

She squeezed my hand, smiled, and fell right to sleep.

2011

In New York in November for book party and reading at PPOW gallery. I say, “It’s All Saints day.” Eileen corrects me. “No, it’s All Souls.” 

She’s right.

Coming out of the Met, walking down Fifth, I hear one brother say to another: “I mean, this chick was so much fun, I forgot to fuck her. That’s what I want in a woman—that kind of fun.”

I went down to Occupy today. I watched the police watching the demonstrators. One little cop who could have been my Sicilian cousin was wearing a regulation sweater vest over his regulation shirt. He looked like his mother had dressed him for a school photo. I smiled and said, “I like your vest.” He looked away.

They have everything they need at Zucotti Park, including a library with an anarchist-poet-librarian who knows Kevin and Dodie. I promised to come down again tomorrow, to bring my book to add to the shelves.
--
At the PS1 anniversary exhibit—walking around, taking notes about the exhibit—

Approximately 200 people jumped or fell, most from the North Tower, 101-107 floors—first building hit, second to fall—none of them conclusively identified. Music to make your face fall off: Cardiff, forty black audio speakers, Tallis motet for 40 voices.

Sign in PS stairway: SEPTEMBER 11 CONTINUES, with an arrow pointing you in the right direction. 
--
In Boston for book business. I ask Richard to take me to the airport. It ends up being the opposite of a favor; we have to go drop the cab off with Victor, the guy who owns the medallion. Then Victor will take me to the airport, charging me full price, and I’ll have to tip him well, hoping he’ll be merciful to my brother.

I take Richard out to breakfast before we drive to Victor’s place in Watertown, and I give him fifty dollars.  I’m in town to give a reading at Harvard, a most unlikely development. To paraphrase Langston Hughes: our neighborhood in Dorchester was as far from Harvard as Morningside Heights is from Harlem—a stones-throw across an abyss.

Richard hasn’t read my book. He’s in it, though—all of my brothers are in my book—especially our dead brother, also a writer—so I feel the urge to give though I’m not making any money from the book.

He shouts “Authorette! Authorette!” and laughs maniacally.

But never mind my book. “It’s easy to write a book!” he says. He’s gonna write his own. “It’s a done deal. It’s all written in my head. Just get me a contract! I’ll give you a cut.”

“I’ll see what I can do.”
--
Reading Eileen’s Inferno.  "'I want each of you to write an Inferno,” the teacher says, and the class groans. "It’s just this time. This is yours," the teacher says, and then she smiles.

"It was ours now," Eileen writes. "I would show her my hell."

--
Writing and thinking. It has been years since I saw—oh, so many people. If I had known that leaving my marriage would lead to a cascade of confusion and loss, would I have done it anyway? Yes—because I was so angry. And because leaving that marriage was the only way I could be a good mother.

Sometimes it’s hard to sleep, thinking about what I’ve done and what’s been done to me. Me me me. And I think about people I’ve loved, and other people I don’t even know. Night thoughts.

I don’t have a will of steel. I get up and have a glass of wine and go back to bed. But I can’t sleep, so I get up to eat some bread and cheese in the dark. I drink more wine and, against my better judgment, I turn on the computer to browse the Internet and look up people who disappeared from my life long ago. Then I try to go to sleep.
--
Leah came to me in a dream. As she approached the hospital, the bells tolled. Sometimes the bells stalled. She said: that’s because sometimes figuration stalls.

In the dream, Jackie Robinson sailed past in a Mercedes and they nodded at each other.

Leah was wearing a bib made of words. She explained how she’d survived: “My mother loved me, so others loved me.”

I leaned closer to read her bib. I remembered how much her mother used to annoy her. Now I knew that didn’t matter.

I thought she was going to give me her bib, but she pulled away and said, “It’s actually for sale. It’s a multiple, it not for giving.” So I couldn’t afford it.

She told me about her children, her marriage, her three lovers, her dealer and her world travels. The life of an art-world insider.

Still dreaming, I sat up and wrote it down.

The next night I saw, beside my bed, what I’d written in my sleep: nothing.

I put down my book and took off my glasses so I could hear better. Two takes of “Solitude,” and that piano trill that always stops me in my tracks. Loneliness as honky-tonk, or vice-versa.





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Excerpts have been published, in different form, in Colorado Review and in an Irish anthology edited by Dermot Healy.