While there are no babies, I carry on. I am testament to the problem
of the baby. Look at me—flaunting my own survival. Who am I?
While there are no babies, I carry on. I am testament to the problem
of the baby. Look at me—flaunting my own survival. Who am I?
Their toys look like erect and circumcised penises. The bubble wands absurdly so with a dorsal vein running the length of a long ribbed shaft and a helmet-shaped glans at the tip. There is even a little uretha-like sphincter where the plastic was poured & pinched off. The boys grip their bubble wands. “Blow for me,” they command.
I am sitting in the blow-up kiddie pool reading an essay by Kelly Jolley on Thomas Merton’s Cables to the Ace. The boys are in the pool with me, standing. They bend to load their water guns, nosing the water with their barrels and sliding the handles back. “What’s the rule?” I intone. “Don’t get your papers wet,” the boys reply automatically. They blast each other in the belly.
My papers get wet. But not very. It’s fine. Everything is fine. We are on my husband’s family farm in Northern Kentucky, gathered here to pay our last respects to Uncle Jim, and to clean out his cabin, his lean-to, and two sheds, to pull up the carpet where the dogs defecated and gave birth, to divvy up his paintings, and rewrite the deed. There is a red fox in the back woods, and Kelly’s essay is wonderful—moving the way thought moves through questions of how to recover a right relation with words.
“Who’s that” the youngest boy asks, pointing to baby Jesus on the back of page 19. I printed the essay on recycled pageant scripts at the church where I work before we left for the farm. This page features a woodcut of the nativity scene. “Who do you think?” I ask. “Baby Gabriel?” he guesses. Gabriel is his big brother. “Kind of,” I answer: “He’s like baby Gabriel.” “Baby Bryce?” he guesses again referring to himself. “Like baby Bryce,” I say. His parents are not religious. No one in my husband’s family is. I wonder if any of the boys could identify the baby. Perhaps Taylor, the oldest of the second cousins at 16. I name the child, “That’s baby Jesus.” “Baby Jesus,” Bryce repeats. He points, “And mommy, and daddy,” then stops, “Who’s that?” “That’s a shepherd,” I say. I begin to tell him how shepherds tend sheep, but he has rediscovered his water gun and is blasting a partially deflated beach ball, making it bob and spin on the surface.
“Popsicles!” the boys’ grandmother, my mother-in-law, calls from the porch. She is dispensing individually wrapped popsicles in red, white, and blue. The boys thrust the popsicles through the sealed plastic membrane of their wrappers. My mother-in-law likes to be the bearer of sweet things, bubble wands, and water guns. She gave them bowls of ice cream after lunch, and these will be their third popsicles today. “Just checking on you,” she calls out to me as the boys return to the pool, their mouths wrapped around the heads of their popsicles in sticky red, white, and blue o’s. I look up at her in acknowledgment and give a little wave.
She and I have the same exchange several times a day. “You’re not watching them.” “I am.” “No, you’re not. You’re reading.” “I’m doing both.” This morning she rejoined, “Well I guess it’s different when you’re a mother.”
Later in the barn I vent to my husband, “I do watch them, but sideways. I don’t interrupt them. I don’t make them look at me. I let them get absorbed.” My husband nods. He is inspecting the tractor lift which got stuck in the last log haul. I exclaim, “How are they supposed to develop an inner life if they never have any privacy?” For this little speech I am rewarded with a smile and a kiss. I get the hint and laugh. “I’ll be in the pool.”
Back in the pool Bryce asks “What’s that on your arm?” I inspect my forearms. “No, that!” he points to my armpit. “That’s hair,” I answer. “Why you have hair there?” he asks. “Because I’m a grown-up,” I answer. “Your mommy and daddy have hair there too. Your mommy shaves hers just like your daddy shaves his face.” Bryce stares at me, serious. His brother, Gabriel, is practicing swimming under water. “Watch me!” he demands before taking a deep breath and plunging. Bryce has a thought and brightens. “Daddy has hair on his titi,” he announces. He pauses for dramatic effect, “And on his butt!” He appears to fall apart giggling, but his eyes stay on my face. I smile warmly at him, granting permission. Under water Gabriel nuzzles my knees.
Later, I sit reading in a lawn chair beside the pool. Bryce sidles up to me. He pokes the soft flesh around my hips before stroking the roll my tummy makes just below my belly button. I am not ignoring him. I am not interrupting him either. He presses his hands into my thighs, belly, breasts, climbing up into my chair. I do and do not yield to him, shifting only slightly without taking my eyes from my essay. He tucks his knees and lays his ear against my womb. I turn the page and let my hand fall on his head. His eyes are open. He looks out.
So my neighbor. Well, what? What to say about the man. He’s out in his side yard and I’m out in my driveway. Pure coincidence! I’m getting something from my trunk. And he says, “I saw you walking the other day. You walk a lot?” And I say yes. And, okay, I probably say something about the Saint Joseph River and the trees and the birdsong—I rhapsodize, because that’s what I do, but not because of him. But of course he’s there and he hears it. And well what should he say in response? He leans back on his hips, just kind of puts himself out there. And he’s got a big round belly. He says, “Yeah, I gotta start working out.” And what do you think your mother said? Well, I shook my head and leaned in and said, “I think you look great.” That’s what I said, holding my hands up like I do, earnest chipmunk pose: “I think you look great.” Well okay. So it’s a couple days later and here comes my neighbor, ambling past my driveway window, and he’s holding a rake. It’s a high window so I’m only seeing the top parts of him, his head and the head of the rake, but he’s just kind of . . . well, twirling the rake. I’m thinking “Please, please, please don’t rake my yard.” Because he does that you know, mows my lawn or shovels my driveway—wholly unbidden!—which I’m grateful for because it’s hard and my shoulder hurts. But it also makes me feel geriatric. Like, “old woman shut up in white dollhouse.” And that’s sort of how I assumed it was. Like he’s thinking “old woman.” Except we’re probably the same age. Or maybe he’s a little bit older. Anyway he’s got this T-shirt—he was wearing it when I told him he looks great. It’s got one of those stick figures doing some activity, I don’t remember what, and under the stick figure, well what do you think it says? “Life is crap.” Just like that. So he comes twirling and I turn from the window and take a deep breath. And I go back into my romper room where I’ve got my stuffed llamas and the jewel tone christmas lights strung up and I roll out my beach towel because I can’t find my yoga mat. And here’s my beach towel which says huge in the exact same font, “Life is good.” And I stretch.
I am concerned for my soul. I hear myself over lunch and I am not who I want to be. I have not taken the care I ought. I have let my heart grow hard. Again. At thirty-three and a distance of several states, I am pissed at my parents. And it shows. I want to have a pleasant lunch with my husband and friend. I want to learn things. I want to be generous and curious and capable of surprise. But perhaps not as much as I want to have my husband and friend side with me against them: my parents. I tug the conversation in the direction of my pissedness: How horrible my parents are! And were! How sad for me! Poor me!
(And behind the “poor me,” a plea: find my edges and cut me out of here, a clean victim.)
I know people who have no concept of sin. I do not disbelieve them. I simply wonder at them.
In my concern for my soul I have taken to walking the high grassed levee that begins near my house and continues along the water treatment plant and compost facility, past trailer parks and industrial parks, until, crossing two highways, it lands in a recreational park with a pond and fountain, two playgrounds and a pool. It is guesswork—perhaps if I take my body for a walk, subject my senses in this way . . . A second guess: I am listening to a Librivox recording of Jane Austen’s Persuasion. I do not relate to Anne Elliot. She is too independent of her father’s silliness, too reconciled to her mother’s death. She is not inclined to wrath or envy or pride. She does not succumb to resentment and is justly self-satisfied. She is strange to me, but I enjoy her company and am glad for her example.
I rarely see others on the levee. A middle-aged couple in khaki shorts and polos taking quick, evenly paced steps, wrists rigid, elbows bent. Two women in black leggings and hot pink tanks, jogging, stopping, bending over their knees, straightening, walking haphazardly, stretching their hips before jogging again.
It is three miles from where the levee begins near my house to the park with the pond. I am just past the water treatment plant; the smell of sewage giving way now to the smell of rotting yard debris. Louisa Musgrove has thrown herself from the Cobb and cracked her head. Something is cycling toward me. I don’t understand. It has overtaken me before I see it clearly: The head of a large buck turned on its side and lashed to the front rack of a bicycle, its neck packed with bath towels, its eyes open. A smell. And a man riding the bicycle. I turn. The man turns, twisting his head over his shoulder. We lock eyes. I am afraid. I see my fear in his face. He is terrified.
I continue with my levee walks. I do not see the man again. Several days later I am driving a church bus full of tweens home from the waterpark. It is near dusk. We are just out of Possum Trot, still fifteen miles or so from the church and my home and the levee. To my left I see an emptied headless deer body lashed to the back rack of a bicycle. The legs are stiff. I can see inside the belly. The man is riding against traffic on the far shoulder. We are moving in the same direction. I overtake him without seeing his face.
In bed I ask S if he ever feels shame. He pauses. I clarify: I mean now, as an adult. He takes his time thinking. Finally he says, “Yes. A couple times. I’ve been ugly to my mom, impatient with her. I’ve teased her. Not in a nice way.” I search his face. He acquiesces, “That was a while ago. I realized what I was doing and I didn’t like it so I stopped. It was easy for me to stop. It’s been a long time.” We are quiet together. I know that he heard the same thing I heard over lunch—my pissedness at my parents and the pettiness of it. I know that he knows that I am ashamed of myself, that I want to be better than I am, that I do not find it easy to stop. “I am ugly like that so much more than you are,” I say. I am not complaining. It is explicitly a comparison, but it doesn’t feel like one. No wrath, no envy, no pride accompanies it. He offers a small smile and pats my thigh. I know that he loves me. And I trust he will not contradict me. To contradict me on this score would be to lie and—because we are not in the business of lying to one another—to break faith. He says, “Well babe, you’ve got a fire in you.”
Modesty doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.
Which isn’t to say I don’t value it.
Ten years ago my at-the-time boyfriend and I got together with one of my sister’s friends. We were all home on a college break and she invited us over to her parents’ place on the pretense of wanting to get to know my ‘current crush’. She, my sister’s friend, greeted us at the door wearing a sheer A-shirt and jeans. No bra, just her purple nipples rubbing against her ribbed top. Her nipples were intermittently and asymmetrically erect throughout our hour-long visit. I remember casting my eyes around her parents’ house, looking for a sweater to throw at her. Afterwards in the car my boyfriend complained, “Give a good guy a break.”
But my other points of reference for modesty are more muddled than that. Around the house, throughout my childhood, my mother also favored A-shirts with no bra. Having breast-fed three babies, her nipples were the color of dark cherries and permanently erect. And because she was a dancer—often dancing herself breathless in the living room, the furniture pushed against the wall, practicing grande jetés in nothing but a leotard, sometimes the thong leotard with the sunburst logo my father had given her as an anniversary gift, Dave Matthews blaring on the surround sound—her breasts were small pert globes on a small taut frame. She often cited the smallness and tautness of her frame as the reason I couldn’t wear whatever I was wearing around the house—pajamas usually, baggy sweatpants and an oversized T-shirt with nothing underneath. “Your father!” she would whisper catching me in the kitchen or on the couch. I inevitably cried protest pointing at her get-up. To which she would respond with anger-bitten syllables: “Cat-lin, I am your moth-er, and his wife, and I am small-er than you.”
Once she came upon me and my dad talking in the living room. It was late evening. He had changed out of his work clothes and into sweatpants and a T-shirt. I was wearing sweatpants too, and instead of an oversized T-shirt I had on a men’s plaid dress shirt. I would have picked the dress shirt up at a thrift store. I was responsible for buying my own clothes. My dad’s clothes were off-limits. It was the late 90’s, the apex of grunge. My dad leaned back on the couch at an angle, one knee raised, his arm draped over it. I was bunched up in an armchair, facing him. We were talking philosophy—the seeming incompatibility of human freedom and divine determination, and the need for an ontological distinction to reconcile the difference. My dad and I were in agreement that the most illuminating metaphor likened God to the author of a complete and perfect book, while we mortals were the incomplete and imperfect characters of that book. It felt good to agree with him. I was enjoying myself. My mom entered the room. My dad trailed off. He got up to leave and was barely through to the adjacent kitchen when she turned to me and, full volume for once, bit out the words, “You unbuttoned your shirt in front of your father didn’t you?” I searched her face before tugging my shirt flat in front of me. The buttons were all done up save the two topmost buttons which I never buttoned and the third button down which had sprung open of its own accord revealing, I gathered, some measure of soft, freckled skin. I looked back at her. She was quivering.
This would have been during high school, early high school if my dad was still talking philosophy with me. By late high school my life had been mostly exported away from the house. I was dating a boy who went to college five hours north on the I-5. (Not the ‘good guy’ boyfriend who craved a break. He came next.) When my college boyfriend was home on breaks, I hung out with him. The rest of the time I hung out with boys from my high school. We met at coffee shops or house parties or the reservoir in the west hills where the star-watching was good.
The boys from my high school were handsome and sweet. What’s more they were readers, toting Whitman to the reservoir so we could check our recitations of “I Sing the Body Electric.” I could have gone to the senior prom with any of them. But I wanted to go with my boyfriend.
My boyfriend was a junior in college that year and didn’t particularly want to go to my senior prom. Well: if he didn’t want to go to high school events then maybe he shouldn’t be dating a high schooler; I had gone to his senior prom with him when I was just a freshman and I hadn’t felt particularly comfortable tagging along with him and his giant friends; if I could swing that discomfort then he could swing this; and anyways I had already asked the Vice Principal to make an exception to the ‘no guests over twenty’ rule. The vice principal had said he’d be happy to on account of my all around excellent academic performance. (In retrospect it occurs to me that my boyfriend’s mother’s fierce political and financial support of the public school district might also have had something to do with it.) . . . Fine. My boyfriend agreed to drive down.
I had been someone’s date to the senior prom every year of high school: the first year with my boyfriend, the second two years with other boys. My boyfriend and I held each other loose like that. For the first three proms, I had borrowed someone’s big sister’s floor-length gown. This year I asked my mom if I could borrow her brushed-silk mini dress, the pale sea-green one dad had bought her on a recent date at the mall. She said yes, so long as I didn’t stretch it out. “I won’t stretch it out,” I promised.
My mom was in fact small-er than me, but barely. I was an inch and a half taller, and maybe five pounds heavier. What seemed to matter to her was that I was softer, squishier. Her edges were sharper. And she was more toned. For all that, we wore the same dress size: size zero.
My mom’s size-zero pale-sea-green brushed-silk mini dress had boning through the ribs and waist. Above the boning, a shallow shelf-bra held my soft, squishy breasts high and tight. The shelf-bra was supported by adjustable brushed-silk spaghetti straps with dainty silver buckles. Below the buckles, bra, and boning, a paneled skirt gripped my soft, squishy abdomen, hips, and ass. The dress ended abruptly two inches below my butt cheeks and the abstract region my mom referred to as my “sex.”
It was a beautiful dress. I spent a month of Saturdays building an outfit around it: Cream leather cowboy boots, a cream faux-fur shrug for in and out of the car, a beaded cream clutch, and huge rhinestone clip-ons. All from the thrift store save the clutch which my mom had given me as a birthday gift.
“Do you want me to curl your hair again, honey?” My mom had curled my long, thin brown hair for all my proms to date, partitioning sections with her strong pinky fingers before winding them up in the iron, counting to ten, and letting them go bouncing. She and I were set up in front of the mirror in me and my sisters’ bathroom. I sat on a stool. She stood behind me, inclining her head to watch the iron as she worked. She wore her own thin brown hair in a short pixie. It had been long like mine. She cut it right around when thin brown hairs started to form around my privates and in my underarms. I waited until she was immersed in her task—partitioning, winding, counting, and dropping the curls like one of her barre routines—before fretting aloud to her inclined reflection about what kind of underwear I should wear under the dress.
As far as my mom knew I owned only saggy jersey briefs. In fact I owned two other pairs of panties she had no idea about: one, a white lace thong with little bows sewn all over it which I had worn to great effect for my boyfriend during his last college break. The other pair was part of a matching set, lowrider bikini bottoms with stitched ruffled hems that went with a matching cap sleeve crop top—both made of sheer stretchy cotton and candy-pink. I intended to wear the candy-pink set that night following the prom as one half of a ‘thank you’ to my boyfriend for being such a good sport. The other half of my ‘thank you’ was that I had booked a hotel room for us at the Best Western down by the river.
The prom tickets had been twenty-five dollars each, the hotel room eighty-five with tax. Together with the candy-pink set, my babysitting savings were toast. So this was the problem: the saggy jersey briefs my mom knew about would make for terrible panty lines under the brushed silk of the dress. And the two pairs of panties my mom didn’t know about would be even worse with their lace and bows, stitched hems and ruffles. There wasn’t enough time for me to run out to Ross for a pair of seamless somethings. And even if there had been time, I didn’t have any cash.
Panty lines were a big deal to my mom, even at home with just the family around. I don’t know that I ever saw the rounded planes of her tight bottom interrupted by fabric underneath. She looked up from the iron to meet my eyes in the mirror. “Oh honey, I just assumed you’d borrow one of my thongs. I have a high-cut seamless pair that will match your skin.”
Ten minutes later I stood curly-haired in front of the full-length mirror in her bedroom wearing my complete ensemble and pinching the clutch. I turned just shy of 180′ and bent over slightly, goosing my neck to see in the mirror. “See what I’m worried about, Mom?” She answered dismissively, “Honey, nobody’s going to be looking at you from that angle.” I goosed even farther. She threw up her hands, “Catlin, I don’t know what to tell you. I think you look nice. A bombshell as usual. Very sexy. Very Marilyn Monroe.” This was her way of reminding me that I was still big-ger than her. It was also her way of announcing that she was done helping me get ready.
But I didn’t want to be done yet. It had been nice in the bathroom. With her curling my hair and offering to lend me her underwear. I stood up straight and turned around to face the full-length mirror again. Meeting her eyes in the mirror I said, “I won’t stretch it out.” My mom leaned forward to tug the hem of the dress down. “Well, if you do, whatever.” I crossed my toes in my boots. “You want to see something, Mom? Something I bought. For Jim. For after. At the party—” I hadn’t told my parents about the Best Western. Instead I had told them that there would be a party after the prom and that I would be spending the night at a girlfriend’s parents’ house. “—It’s just a top. To wear with jeans. I’ll wear a bra under it. There’s also a pair of panties. They came free with the top. They’re super cute. Not that anyone will see them—” a lie—”But you’ll like them.” My mom brightened. “Show me! Where did you get them? How much were they?” “Be right back,” I said and trotted down the hall to my bedroom. I kept a shoebox in the back upper shelf of my closet for certain photos, certain letters, the white lace thong, and the candy-pink set, still in its Victoria Secret bag with its tags and receipt. I trotted back to my parents’ bedroom, pulled the top out of the bag, and pinned it to my front. “Oh, it’s adorable, Catlin. And with jeans. Jim will love it. Did you go to the Victoria Secret at the mall? Were there many left do you remember?” We were having fun.
I would have liked to stay there, trying on clothes for her, being affirmed in my choices. But it was getting late. My boyfriend didn’t like coming to my parents’ house—no doubt because my dad, who didn’t have much to say to me, always had something to say to him: “Catlin, could you give us some privacy please?” I was meeting my boyfriend at a restaurant for dinner before the prom. “I should go, Mom.” She had pulled the panties out of the bag too, held them up and coo-ed. Now she folded them carefully and slipped them back in the bag, took the top from me and folded it too. “Here you go, sweetheart.” She took a step back from me, looked me up and down. “Do you want to show your father before you go?” I met her eyes. “Nah, that’s okay.” She blinked and smiled.
Seated at dinner I could feel the metal patio chair press a woven-basket pattern on the exposed lower half of my ass. Later at the prom—deep into the fast tracks—my boyfriend thought to lift me onto a bank of speakers so I could dance above the crowd. I was a good dancer. I still am. Bold and expressive, with strong lines, like my mom. “How was I supposed to know you were wearing a thong?” Jim pleaded later. But whatever. If reports of my exposed ass went around I never heard them.
I have resolved to begin again. And this time to be completely honest. Except for my name. And the names of my sisters. And perhaps the names of some others.
Beyond the names I mean to practice truth.
Fictionalizing the names is easy enough to defend. My father has a search alert out for me. When my name shows up on the internet he sees it. I know because he forwards me the links via email.
He has search alerts out for my two sisters as well. When Emory wrote about her conversion to Catholicism—a lengthy and carefully crafted love letter to her church—she included the passing noun clause “anemia of my childhood Christian education.” My father emailed her the link with the subject line, “Your Disrespectful and Very Hurtful Essay.” Several months later Ada uploaded a video of herself strumming her guitar and singing a song she had written—a folk ballad detailing the life of Saint Augustine. My father phoned me, angry: “You want me to feel proud of her for posting videos of herself on the internet?”
I want to post stories of myself on the internet without activating his anger, which is to say: without activating his shame.
Paternal shame is never far from my mind, nor is Genesis 9:
. . . And Noah began to be an husbandman, and he planted a vineyard: And he drank of the wine, and was drunken; and he was uncovered within his tent.
And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brethren without.
And Shem and Japheth took a garment, and laid it upon both their shoulders, and went backward, and covered the nakedness of their father; and their faces were backward, and they saw not their father’s nakedness.
And Noah awoke from his wine, and knew what his younger son had done unto him. And he said, Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren. And he said, Blessed be the Lord God of Shem; and Canaan shall be his servant. God shall enlarge Japheth, and he shall dwell in the tents of Shem; and Canaan shall be his servant . . .
The mandates are clear enough: Thou shalt look away from your father’s nakedness. Thou shalt enter his tent backwards and cover him. Thou shalt not look upon him. Thou shalt not tell others what you’ve seen.
But what if your father is confused about the boundaries of his own body, so that to tell of the light on the mountain is to expose him, and to step out into the world is to walk in on him?
Following parent-teacher conferences at my elementary school he would come home exasperated, throw the paperwork on the counter, issue the report to no one in particular: “A star-student as always. Highly intelligent. Artistically gifted. Respectful. Conscientious.” His voice was full of frustration. Why should he have to stop by the school after work to hear what my teachers thought of his child? Like being made to hear what they thought of his anatomy, humiliating. Then as now, he counters humiliation with contempt.
When I began writing online—six years ago, in France—I felt everything had to be fictionalized lest somebody find out I was me. But now I think the me at issue wasn’t me, it was him. I seem to have been walking backwards my whole life, throwing coats and jackets at sensed masses. In so doing, I have confounded topography. And I have made it difficult to find my own way. Enough of that. He may very well have saved us from the waters of destruction. Still, the world is not his tent. I mean to walk face-forward now. I mean to find the edge of his vineyard and stake claim to some territory of my own.
THE MAN WHOSE MOODS TENSIFY THE WORLD OF THIS STORY