Today I have lived 30 years.
Preface. A forensic reconstruction of things forgotten:
Coalescence, germination, fruition. 21 hours syncopated labor, the two of us, the artist and the wet red clay on the wheel, peristalsis and pressure and the novel miracles of light and air. Blind mouth to breast, and the first slumber. A moment’s lucidity, identification of you: mother and you: father, kitten-grey eyes straining in the sterile yellow light, we are a family, this is my gift to you, your gift to me.
Caretakers and primary colors and lullabies and murmured promises. First steps. First words. The halting trial phase of being human. Do I remember the first blade of grass? The first bird? Were the cicadas singing the day you brought me home?
Then: the other one, the second and penultimate piece, like me but not me, already stout and silent and aware. He is born without a name, but he is brother still (my father tries to name him for Orion, but he is overruled), and ours.
Chapters one through 30. Everything.
Amanda, our gentle black lab/border collie mix, no longer skeptical of me but a companion and confidante, soft and strong and knowing. Birthday parties, mine and others’, ruined by my tantrums, and I cannot explain why the noise and crowds scare me but they do, and yet the parties never stop, and that is how I learn about dread and obligation. Bickering. Weeping. He started it. She hit me.
The first words my eyes understand. So long ago, so impossible, I remember them as well as learning to sing and leap and kiss, which is to say not at all.
Daddy: what is lightning? How do airplanes fly? How do lightning bugs glow? Why are there seasons? What are stars? Will you play your guitar? I’m not tired yet.
Mommy: why do boys and girls look different? Why do flowers need water? Do you like what I made? Will you sing me a song? When will the baby be here? When will I see my sister?
Then I am peering into her sleeping newmade face, shy and wondering and maybe a little jealous, afraid to touch, afraid to look away, barely comprehending that though we will grow into women together, she will never be so beautiful as she is now, in our mother’s arms.
The entire world at eye-level. Streams and spider webs and snails and freshly mown grass and mud puddles and the crashing tide. Easels. Countertops, if I stand tiptoe, and something good cooking. Thickets and hidey-holes and trees to climb, hamster fur and dog noses and severe praying mantis eyes. Everything is to be touched, tasted, studied, resampled, processed, internalized, loved, reviled. There are kites to fly and holes to dig and dams to build in the gutters, the gathered rain flowing over our hands as the neighbors look on and say, “She should put some shoes on those children.”
My first bike, on a rain-washed sixth birthday. I want to know where the training wheels are. “You don’t need them,” my father insists, and twenty minutes, five minutes, an hour, a flash later his cheers fade behind me, my heart and thin legs a wild pumping blur.
Girl Scouts and piano lessons and little league and dance recitals. Plaid jumpers and Christmas pageants. Boys smiling, boys mocking, boys laughing. Wanna race? Bet you can’t catch me.
Where do babies come from? Mommy finds a pad of lined paper and draws our insides as she explains. A uterus looks like a pear. She gives me Lennart Nilsson’s A Child is Born. For hours I stare at the full-color pictures of where life comes from, parsing words like “Fallopian” and “ovulation” and “breech,” and at six I am convinced that I know everything and nothing at all.
Eight. A bad year. There is an election and Daddy does not have a job anymore. Auntie Barbara has cancer again, and soon she dies, and no one sees Mommy for three days, though we can hear her crying in her room. Someone breaks into our house with all of us there, shuts the poor old deaf dog in the bathroom while she sleeps, and I wake up in my parents’ bed with the others and Mommy is on the phone with 911.
Then there is the day I hop off the bus and Daddy is home to hug me. I am happy to see him but where is Mommy?
She is hardly recognizable in the vast tangle of tubes and wires, the needles buried in her arms, the dull machines keeping score. It smells sterile and medicinal and caustic. She is sleeping, and the look on my father’s face says it was a mistake to bring me here. I am amazed, overwhelmed, to learn Mommy is mortal, Mommy whose own mommy and daddy died before I was born. The doctors spirit me away and I don’t know if I will see her again. Blood clot. Blood clot. What is a blood clot? I am angry and weeping while my teacher rocks me, and for once the other kids are quiet.
She walks again, slowly, with help from a machine we call Grover, and for a year she has to wear her “ugly stockings.” We buy her a fluffy stuffed poodle named Fifi LaFemme. From now on she needs rat poison to stay alive. From now on my heart will stop whenever my legs begin to ache.
Spring comes, and another spring, and we recover, but we are changed.
Fast-forward, now, let’s get to the good parts, which include the bad parts:
Lanky and vertical and unbrushed, awkward and ostracized, the tears on the bus go round and round. Word-devourer, dolphin drawer, loner and poet and lucid dreamer. Telepathic dragons. Sunshine and bike rides and prank phone calls and Dad drumming on the steering wheel. Blizzards and art shows, mountain hikes and sledding and the first time I catch a wiggling salamander. Buckets of cicada shells. Fistfuls of four-leaf clovers. Accidents, gashes, stitches, bruises, dirty fingernails. Skeptical looks from the willowy blossoming girls who want to know why I’m not wearing a bra, as if my unbudded chest could possibly need one. Take a shower. Wash your hair. Are you preparing for a flood in those jeans? Are you a lesbian? Don’t talk to me. Sit over there. Ugly. Geek. Loser. Freak. Get away.
Insomnia and anxiety and fidgeting and therapy and pills. Homework forgotten or neglected or shunned. Grades in the shitter, parent-teacher conferences that do not go well. Blood between my legs at a week past thirteen. Fourteen and fumbling behind the swimming pool, my first taste of tongue, my first taste of many things, and while my midsection is narrow my hips grow wide and strong and agile. A furtive trip to Planned Parenthood, which needs more and not less of our money, by the way, and after that I am more careful but not careful enough, not so careful that my mother does not wake me to put the Depo-Provera calendar on my 16-year-old lap and ask for an explanation. I bawl but am not sorry.
Too many boys to love, but I try, we all try, don’t we? I loved you all, still love you, though I broke your hearts, though you broke mine. Forgive me. Forgive me. Forgive me.
Glorious boarding school, all-girls, where a 14-year-old New York ex-pat teaches me about confidence and cursing and stand-up comedy, until I fuck that up and try again in uniform. I play Abigail Williams screaming at nothing. I learn to stand perfectly still for hours. I finish my preflight checklist, I ease back on the yoke and break free.
Mom and I fight over colleges, but finally we are all satisfied with the little liberal arts institution in North Carolina, where I go to class barefoot and learn about fatalism and Freud and Frankenstein, where my fingers first strum a guitar, where I fall in love with everyone, including two boys—one of whom will break my heart and one whose heart I will break—and a fierce woman-poet whose lips I taste in a fumbling drunken stupor.
Pillow fights and anime nights and afternoons gathered on the benches, we exchange partners and touch often. My right ovary is subsumed in a tumor and must be cut free of my body. I spend a month in Costa Rica, where I listen to a volcano’s indrawn breath like a bellows, where a small rainforest doe licks the salt from my cheeks. They will be wet again when I graduate and drive to Raleigh, disconsolate, embracing the ugly cry, until we arrive at our new apartment and the key doesn’t work, so Loren’s dad climbs in through the front window and we laugh ourselves sick to see his long limbs disappear.
The next seven years:
New apartment new job new friends new coffee new bills new anxieties new failures, hopeless artist searching flailing fighting crying hiding sleeping, I love you but I don’t think I want children, please marry me, please leave me, don’t look at me, take the bed when you go, I am sorry, I am sorry, I am sorry. Intermittent lovers, an interlude, a wait-and-see. Screw it, I’m a redhead now. A lost boy from a lost family, almond-shaped eyes and catharsis and old wounds slowly closing. Four coworkers who become four friends who become four brothers. A string of jobs I hate, and they hate me right back and drop me one by one: a balding, small-eyed Southerner tells me I’m crazy and no one will miss me; a temp agent calls me on a Friday night and tells me not to come in on Monday; a poser in a black muscle shirt suggests I go do something more meaningful, you know what I mean?—and it takes everything I have not to spit back YES, I know what you fucking mean, we all know what you mean you money-grubbing hack, you prison warden, thank you for acknowledging that what we do here is fucking worthless—but instead I nod politely and say thank you and flee home in weeping shame.
After that I am done with full-time jobs. I stay home and make things and am happy. I freelance. I am broke. I ask for work and suddenly there is a meeting over coffee, a level-eyed leap of faith, show me the favorite sentence you’ve ever written, this is not a test, you are welcome here, do not let anyone tell you you are less-than, you are worthy, you belong. Ink in my shoulder and my arm, the ever-dragon, Make Good Art. A contract with the word “royalties.” I stand in the Atlantic, bare-breasted under Cygnus, and the lost boy’s kiss is warm and I believe in it. The fluorescing sun crests the sea.
Today I am 30. Tomorrow I will be 60, and the day after that I will sleep where they scatter me (I haven’t yet decided). You will all be there, because you are the pieces of my life, you are what makes a life, you are the phonetics and the syntax and vocabulary. There is no one like me because there is no one like you.
Thank you for making me.