The house got dressed up in a corduroy jumper for Thanksgiving. Swatches of primary colors were sewn together to make for a jaunty little dress dropped over a turtleneck.
Pies smoked in the cold air on the back porch. They covered the picnic table and an ironing board. White plumes spun in the autumn air and fogged my glasses when I bent over the pies. Dry leaves cracked when they dropped from the trees.
The house smelled rich with roasted turkey, dusty pastry, and dark cherries in heavy syrup. Tables ran the length of the long kitchen. Tablecloths in different shades of cream overlapped one another. I laid paper napkins painted with portraits of serious turkeys by the china plates and dropped ice cubes into the cut glass goblets. I unfolded crepe paper turkeys, their torsos a web of of tissue paper diamonds, and roosted them beside pillars of salt and pepper.
Cranberries fell with a thump and quivered, their waists marked by the cans. I poured dusty mints and greasy peanuts into dishes and slipped butter knives into small bowls of shining mayonnaise. Sweet pickles rolled on a plate and a glass pitcher of water sweated under the bright lights of the oven’s hood.
The turkey sat in a rack on the stove, its skin brown and shining with grease. My mom pulled a thick layer of fat from the gravy before she poured it into the boat resting on a saucer. Sweet potatoes were given a last whip, mashed potatoes a final mash. Heavy spoonfuls of butter were dropped on bowls of peas and succotash.
Aunts and uncles pulled our cousins through the front door by the hoods buttoned to their coats. Cold air hung onto our family while they shook coats from their long arms. Our Polish aunts were made up like drag queens. Their eyebrows stood in high arches, and their cheeks were painted with red circles. They looked like marionettes. I thought they were beautiful. Our uncles stood like mafia agents with pockmarked skin and hair greased into rows. Our cousins were wild. They ducked under their parents’ arms and snatched food from the tables. They were gypsy children, crawling under chairs and over sofas. They were unafraid of their parents, who were reaching across the tables for heavy plastic cups of beer. Our aunts wiggled their long fingers in the air before pulling the beers to their thin lips, and their heads fell back when they laughed. Everything was so funny, and the windows steamed. The laughter in the house was loud and overwhelming. It pulled my hair into a ponytail, and I shivered in my jumper. My knees bent when I carried heavy piles of scratchy coats up the stairs and dumped them on our parents’ bed.
The kitchen was a pressure cooker. The heat colored my mom and grandmom pink. The day was shot through with cold outside, and it felt grownup and special to throw open all the windows so the kitchen could shake out the heat. Our aunts and uncles lit cigarettes over their children’s heads and tapped off gray ashes into heavy glass ashtrays. Embers glowed red in the daylight of the kitchen.
There was a swath of dirt packed like limestone beneath the swing. A veil of loose dust blew over it. The dirt was the color of thirst. No water darkened it. It was a forgotten pair of tan khakis hanging in the back of the closet. The black rubber seat was thick and heavy. It smelled of warm chemicals and stuck to my legs like an internal organ or a tumor. It hung from chains crumbling with wet rust. The rust colored my palms red, and it made them smell like blood. I swung the way a child in a fairytale swings. The fairytale would begin, “And the little girl swung alone in her backyard for hours and hours on long summer days. Her family whispered about her from the kitchen window, and the neighbors looked at her with a quick flicker of worry in their eyes. She couldn’t be bothered. She kicked her legs wildly in the air to pull herself up, and she swung with such force that her bottom lifted out of the seat when the swing dropped her in between back and forth. She was airborne for a second before her bottom dropped back into the seat with a sharp bounce. The little girl swung and swung, her toes tapping the shingles on the roof of the house and lifting green leaves from the tops of the trees. One day, she swung so hard and for so long that she lifted right out of the swing and began to fly. She flew over the shuddering roof of her house, waving to her sisters who stood yowling like cats at the bedroom window. She tossed down a sweaty handful of quarters to the children looped around a tinkling ice cream truck, and she felt lighter so she flew a little faster. She circled trees and blew on their trunks to loosen the monkey balls. She flew over the cats and dogs roaming the neighborhood and sang lullabies to them. Her singing sounded clear and grownup in the wide blue sky. She skimmed the telephone wires with her fingertips, plucking out simple songs, and…”
That’s how the fairytale would begin. The real story just has me swinging alone for hours and hours. Someone should have taken the chains in both hands, stilled the twisting swing, and pulled my small body into a lap. They left me to swing alone in a wild sweat, and I suppose this was the kindness that life allowed them to show me. I passed hours swinging myself into a rhythm so that I couldn’t hear anything but chains clanking and wind building careful tunnels through my brain.
I spend each day on the same dream. An oyster in a shell hard with wrinkles happens upon me as I lie splayed on a rock, desperately trying to buckle in my knees and suck in my belly. I’m a pile of wet drowning in the ocean. I’m an open sore rubbed raw by the ocean’s salt. As the years pass, my colors wash away and I leech into the water. Fish swim by me and I’m not an oyster anymore. Without my shell, I’m just another slice of the ocean, floating without definition. Gray against gray. I hang out in the sea, and the sea hangs me on a hook to drip. I dream of an oyster with an impressive shell sidling up to me and smoothing his long membrane. He’d say, “Listen, lady. I’ve watched you hanging out with the ocean, losing yourself. I’m going to take you away. I’m going to take you to a place where no sun shines. No motes float. No algae grows. It’s just plain old black, baby. And no one will know that you don’t have a shell, that you’re losing your outline. No one will know that you don’t know what to hang on to, because baby, you’ll be hanging on to me. You can slip into my shell and gel right up against me. You can bleed into me, and I’ll carry you through life.”
This is what I’d dream about. An end to my formless floating with nowhere to attach myself, no way to move inside my outline. My whisper has a whisper, and I can’t be heard over the ocean’s roar.
Or maybe I’d just dream of seawater lapping over me. And the sun rising and setting. And light sweeping dust from the rocks.
She called her mom to tell her that she couldn’t meet for dinner because her car was acting funny. She didn’t tell her that she had been yelled at by a coworker and then called into her boss’s office to have a mediated eye to eye with the coworker. It had been humiliating, and the flush hadn’t left her chest for a couple hours. She didn’t tell her that her fish was swimming upside down after acting off for over a week. She had read that mushed up peas were a laxative for fish. She pushed the peas through tiny tears in their shells and cried when she microwaved them. She didn’t go into the fact that Chris hadn’t called her in the five days since their last date. She didn’t like him that much but still wished he’d call. She didn’t mention the book she was reading or the scarf she was knitting or the broken dishwasher or the messy garage or the early meeting tomorrow or the possible trip to Vegas over Thanksgiving. After the eight minute phone conversation, she knew that work was busy and irritating and Theresa was making life miserable again. Traffic on the way to the doctor’s had made her late for the appointment and the receptionist had been short. The bananas were black and she wasn’t sure if she should make banana bread because it seemed that every time she made banana bread because she didn’t want to throw away the bananas, she just ended up throwing away the banana bread so what was the point. Theresa was in a shitty mood almost daily and she didn’t know what bug had crawled up her ass and laid eggs, but it was supposed to snow this weekend and even if the city was in a state of emergency, Theresa would expect her to make it to work. She couldn’t believe it was supposed to snow when there were still leaves on the trees. It snows earlier every year. And on top of that, her car was taking extra long to warm up in the morning and she wasn’t sure if something was wrong with it but she was sure that there was no money to fix if if something were wrong.
Bridget hung up the phone. This was always the way it was with her mother.
My hair is still damp from the shower I took nine hours ago. I twist a thin rope of hair into a tight knot at the root. I only get a couple twists before my finger is locked against my scalp. Thin strands pull tight, and my scalp pills. The smell of shampoo floats around my head. The twist of hair is clean and smooth and healthy, and my hair feels far prettier looped around my finger than it looks in the mirror.
A hot day bleeds. You can’t get away from it. Someone forgot to run the air through the washing machine during the night. A hot day is dirty. Heat sticks to you and leaves an ashy film. Your sheets are limp. The fine hairs on your arms are twisted into tiny sunbursts, glued in place with salt. The creases behind your knees are slick. Your knees make a sound when you stretch your legs and break the thick greasy seal. You stand up, tired before the day begins. The heat leeches life from you. You are sluggish and loose at your joints, like a paperdoll joined with brads. The heat hangs in the air, and it has form and color. The white plastic of your alarm clock looks dull, and the shower curtain dotted with dancing animals hangs limps. The animals are tired. They want to find a place in the shade to hide from the heat and rest. You shower and as you dry yourself with a faded towel, you aren’t sure if you’re wiping away water or sweat. Your towel is limp and you don’t know if it needs to be washed or if it’s the humidity. Your limbs shine. The planes of your face are lit. You wonder if this sheen makes you look alive and attractive or just gross. Your hair hangs in strings around your face. Your hands are tight when you make fists. You are swollen. It is a little cooler when you walk downstairs. You question the tea your lover brewed you. The heat from the traveling mug is no different from the heat hanging in curtains around you in the small kitchen. You grasp the brass doorknob and turn it, the mug held between your breasts, and sweat leaks from the gully down to your stomach as you walk outside into the morning that is struggling to breathe in such heat.