Jamelle Raizer, my birth mother, was the first in her family to marry a non-Jew. She had long, dark curly hair. Sang as she stepped out of the shower. She gave me away and checked herself into a hospital. When she came out, she tried to take me back. CPS stepped in.
“These are unfit living conditions for an infant.”
Cricket and I, playing house in the basement of our new home. “Where’s Daddy? Where’s Daddy?”
“He’s gone to the grocery store,” I say.
We never speak of them again.
Edna McAlexander, our paternal grandmother, is our new “Legal Guardian.” Long blond hair in braids.
When I’m four, she packs a bag of Teddy Grahams, and we walk along 5th Avenue South by the beach, window-shopping early in the morning. Just the two of us. When we get to the other end, the shops are just opening. We go into Regina’s for an ice-cream cone. I eat the tip with the chocolate ball first. We continue up the other side afterward. Me and her, alone in the sunshine.
She holds my hand.
A few months later, her two daughters die. She goes to bed then, rarely gets up. No more walks. She stops playing the piano. She keeps a stash of pastels in her closet, but I’ve never seen her use them. Later, I find a file with a novel-in-progress on the computer. She denies it.
She dreams of retiring on a houseboat in the Keys. I watch her make gumbo—the best seafood gumbo in the universe. She stirs the dark brown roux for a half hour. I stand on one leg in the doorway. She calls me a stork. She makes beautiful, full-sized quilts by hand. They take her eight months, but she gives them away for free. Her stitches are tight as a machine’s. “We come from fifty generations of quilters,” she tells me.
Cricket shows no interest in sewing.
When I’m thirteen, life is finally too much. I come into her room and lay my head down on her lap. For a second. For a minute. Longer. She does not touch me. In horror, I leave.
We never speak of it.
“Thank your mother for me,” my high school English teacher says. “Her letters to the editor always brighten my day.” This particular letter starts, “I, too, was once a right-wing squirrel, but then I discovered Preparation H.”
When I come home from college the first time, she makes us both fuzzy-navels, makes fun of me because I can’t handle my liquor. We play 14 games of Scrabble in a row. She is a walking Oxford English Dictionary, but she can’t beat me. She is not pleased. We go see Mona Lisa Smile. She tells me she went to college for her M.R.S. and my head explodes. “I had no intention of working,” she says. “If my husband had been more successful, I wouldn’t have.”
I’m twenty-two the last time we talk. She’s just been diagnosed with Cancer.
“Are you telling me you’re dying?” I say.
“Don’t worry about me, Darlin’. I’m ready to go. And at least I won’t have to have that other root canal.” The parking lot is filled with grey and brown sedans two weeks later, like a Republican convention center.
We drive her yellow Toyota Matrix to retrieve her ashes.
Ricardo Guzmán. Twenty-five years her junior. Her second husband. Long, dark curly hair. They meet on the beach six months before she gets us. He wrestles alligators and sews baby quilts. He’s a registered nurse and a violent alcoholic. I watch him pierce his own ear with a needle. He puts me in the front basket of his bike and we ride all over town.
The salt air pulls the skin on my cheeks taut.
“¡Apaga la televisión!” he yells Saturday early mornings when I watch cartoons. When I complain, “¡Estoy Llorando!” he says, while playing the world’s smallest violin. He teaches me to play poker when I’m five. Then he teaches me to cheat. “When you’re twenty-one, I’m taking you to Biloxi!”
He holds me tight to his body and rocks against me in the full-size hammock on the back porch when we are alone. Kisses me, wetly, on the lips, his stubble raking the skin from my cheeks. Tells me never to let “other” boys touch me. Gets angry when he catches me lifting his weights. “Don’t do that!” he yells. “You won’t be able to have babies!”
I ask my mom what colita means one day.
“Cute little ass,” she says. “Why?”
Why does Papi call me a cute little ass?
They divorce when I’m six.
I practice biking around and around in circles with my eyes closed for hours every day.
He comes back when I’m nine. Lives in the garage. Sings to me, “Cus’ I’m a loser baby, so why don’t you kill me!” Gives me my first beer. “So you won’t end up a drunk like me.” Teaches me to shoot the cans off a fence at the dump. I’m twelve when he’s diagnosed with Cancer. He stands in the garage, bawling like a baby.
“You’ll be OK, I promise,” I say. I hold him, and I shake.
He leaves again. Returns periodically. Lives in the guest room once. Sets up a camper in the back yard another time. When I’m twenty, I dream one night that I’m dying of Cancer and my eyebrows have to be shaved off. But I’m happy in the dream because I get to kiss Whoopie Goldberg. I call my mom when I wake up.
“He went on life-support last night,” she says. “He’s not expected to pull through.”
I’m fourteen when I meet Roberto. Tall and skinny with dark, wavy hair. He reminds me of Jeff Goldblum, the scientist in Independence Day and Jurassic Park. We shelve books in the school library together. “My parents abandoned me in a basket under a tree when I was a baby,” he tells me as we work.
We both fit, somehow, there between the stacks, our backs pressed together.
He sneaks up behind me at my locker, reads my combination aloud over my shoulder. I can feel his body heat. He’s the first boy to put his arms around me in that way. I go to bed thinking, “I can deal with anything now that I have Roberto.”
He never speaks to me again.
A week later a kid in science class tells me that, “some kid named Robert or something was saying what a ho you were at lunch.”
I call him out after school in front of the buses. “If you ever say anything about me again,” I yell, “I will beat the shit out of you.” I spiral down into depression but decide not to kill myself. I make a list of all of the popular girls in school and why they seem to be happy. I compare myself to them. Then I put on a dress and make-up. I even shave my legs. It works. But I’m miserable.
The night of high school graduation, I see him again for the first time in four years. “Roberto Briceno,” I say.
“Pam Watts,” he says.
“You broke my heart in eighth grade, you asshole.”
“Fuck you,” he says.
I find him on facebook years later. “We had a funny exchange about five years ago,” I write.
“Yes, I remember” he writes back. “It was on June 2 at the YMCA when we last saw each other. Trust me on the date.”
Catherine has wild, wavy blond hair and a birth-mark down the side of her face. She’s the only person in high school who scores higher than me on the state writing test, but she doesn’t take AP English because she doesn’t think she’s good enough. We have to write speeches as characters from Lord of the Flies ten years after the book. We can choose dead ones. She chooses Piggy. Her speech starts, “Snip, snip. Gender alteration.”
She was home schooled before high school. She lived on a houseboat in the Cayman Islands with her brother and father. Her face glows as she describes sinking down in the water watching the fish as they swim past.
I scribble tortured love poetry to her in a journal that no one will ever see.
Night of senior prom, we both skip. We get high with her brother. It’s my first time. We try to jump rope in circles under the stars. I don’t know why. My great revelation of the night: “Hey Carlos,” I say to her brother’s friend. “You and John are sophomores, right? And Catherine and I are seniors. That means we all start with an ‘s’.”
We lose touch after high school.
Zusha’s a good Jewish boy with dark, curly hair from near “the turnpike from Stockbridge to Boston.” He’s wearing a knee-length red, pleated skirt with yellow daisies when we meet at a Waltz party my first month in college. He writes me a love song and draws me Waldorf crayon pictures. His best friend died in high school. He reads me her poetry. I hold him.
I sew him a full-size quilt for his birthday.
“What does friendship even mean?” I ask over and over after we break up. He blocks me on facebook.
Diane’s a rich Jersey Jewish hipster with long, curly hair. She’s dressed like Arthur Miller for Halloween the night we get together. Plays the Fiddle and Viol de Gamba. Writes obscure poetry. Makes me colorful finger-paintings. She records herself reading the whole first half of The Wizard of Oz for me to listen to on my flight home from school.
We’re together when my Mom dies. And for three years after. She has rules for everything. We take the grocery receipts and circle the things that are just our own, split exactly the things that we’ll both use. Everything has to be fair. “Don’t say ‘I love you’ in bed,” she says. “It’s a cliché.”
She critiques my kissing. “I’m only saying something because I know you can do better.”
I stop kissing her.
I meet Lauren when I answer a Craigslist ad for a housemate. She’s a strong mountain woman, twenty-one years older than me. Straight. She builds stone walls then changes into sundresses. She has beautiful long, dark curly hair.
She lets me french braid it sometimes.
The day we meet, she loosely trails a gaggle of five little boys through her magical garden, occasionally playing a tune on her alto recorder like the Pied Piper. Only one of the little boys belongs to her: a beautiful, troubled little blond six-year-old, her “foster grandson.” I move in and we all fall in love.
We burrow down in our sleeping bags in a row before the woodstove like little burritos.
She is so happy that she starts to paint hundreds of little cardboard fishes. I don’t know why she paints fishes when she’s happy. She plays me songs she’s written. “I could fall in love with you,” she sings. “I had no idea I still remembered that song,” she says. “I wonder why I thought of it now?”
I have nightmares and she holds me while I cry, for the first time in my life.
Christmas. She paints decorations, while the little man dismantles the store-bought ones and makes them into cavalry beneath the tree. He replaces the star with electronic R2D2 and muses aloud whether Santa will be so surprised that he accidentally leaves behind his whole bag of toys. I take a thousand pictures of them.
Finally, I have a family.
After Christmas, his barely-post-teenage mother shows up after over a year’s absence and takes him away from us. Lauren stops painting, stops playing, stops singing. The strawberries never get planted this year. She cuts me out.
I have a mental breakdown.
I try to check myself into the hospital. She comes with me, but she’s so uncomfortable that she cracks jokes the whole time we wait, has us rolling on the floor. The hospital won’t admit me. They don’t believe there is anything wrong.
We break up. I move out. But my new housemate “can’t handle [my] emotional vortex.” I have a panic attack. Somehow Lauren knows and she comes for me. I move in with another friend, but come summer, I’m back with the strawberries. I pitch my tent in the backyard but end up inside again, somehow. Finally I gather the strength and move back to the desert. She starts calling when I finally stop. Says she’ll come visit someday.
When we were together, we used to drive around in her Dad’s old blue pickup truck, singing along to the radio. We had an unspoken rule that we stopped at every Marina. She plans to move into a houseboat.
I don’t know where she’ll put it.
I meet Michael at work just after his divorce. “You’re going to be OK,” I tell him. “These scary Big Life Moments usually come when God is preparing us for something better.” He describes himself as a “skinny little Jewish man who somehow won the prom queen.” Got picked on in high school for being “androgynous.”
He has a sketch of Captain America on his office wall that he got from the artist when he was seven. He gives science presentations to children about the differences between AC and DC electricity. His face goes through a thousand variations. Beautiful.
His hero is Nikola Tessla.
He puts his hands on my shoulders and I calculate the probability that all of the oxygen molecules have actually relocated to the other side of the room. After work one day, he picks up my guitar and sings to me, “My Funny Valentine.”
I see him at a concert in town. He’s biked there with his little blond boy.
He cooks dinner for me at his house one night. His little boy runs around the house with no pants on. Picks up the Mandolin and starts “playing” with it.
“Does that really not bother you?” I say.
“Maybe you should put some pants on,” he tells him.
“I think little kids should run around naked all the time,” I say. “It’s really just the instrument. I don’t play the Mandolin . . .”
“And now you never will.” We dissolve into laughter.
He dares me to write my own song. He’ll write one, too, and we’ll go to an open mic and sing them. We make a pinky promise. I write him a like-song, which is a love-song if you’re a coward. It has some kissing. I can’t believe my chutzpah. He says he likes it. We talk about our pasts, and he notices that I hide from the world. “We should compare notes on life in that little box,” he says. I have a panic attack and lash out.
He stops speaking to me.
I tell off both of my graduate professors. Call one a sophist. Argue unrelentingly in class that Descartes’ Ego does not need to exist. Buy a six-pack of Newton’s Folly on the way home. Put on my fedora and suspenders and take aggressively-cheerful self-portraits in my bathroom mirror.
Then I get up and I write.
And I write and I write and I write. I finish the novel that I have been working on for four years. I even write an essay.
I make plans to send them out into the world.
I have four sets of pastels in my closet that I’ve never touched.