My Brother


I published this poem at least 20 years ago.

Whispering to Each Other in the the Darkness

I turn off the car radio and sit
with my brother in the darkness
of a Pennsylvania winter. He is crying
and I am looking at the moon. He asks

me to stay, he begs to come with me.
Across the stiff grass is tin shed
that protects him from sudden beatings.
I have been the one to find him, his knees

tucked beneath his chin, dark hair swept
over his forehead, legs that won’t stop
shaking. I have led him inside, my arms
hung around his shoulders like a shawl.

Now, we sit without speaking, and I
am thinking of the warmth of milk
tested against my wrist, the brushes
he pulled through my hair, dolls caps

I placed on his head. “You are my real
mother,” he says. Fingers of streetlight
briefly touch our wet faces,
shadows clasped tight in our arms.

My Claim to Fame


Yes, everything I have ever written on this subject has been published.  Gotta hate it when your mother does something so interesting.  I mean, how am I supposed to compete?

The Kiss by Lyralen Kaye

I am sitting in the back seat dark

of the station wagon when I see

them do it, my mother leaning forward,

the fall of Sister Nancy’s veil, but even

in the dash lights their lips are visible as they

press together and hold. Their heads

tilt back and my mother’s face softens

as I have never seen it, her eyes pooling

forward, Nancy smiling. Have I ever

seen a smile? I see this and I memorize

everything—the coolness of vinyl beneath

my fingers, the shine of the dash, the station

wagon’s long tunnel. Nancy steps out and the

mother I know clicks back into place like a door

snapping home in the jamb. She calls

my name, saying, What’s the matter with you?

Aren’t you listening? Get up here! I climb

into the front seat, and hug the door away

from her. You’re awful quiet tonight, she says,

as if I have seen nothing. We both know I

am not quiet, but I am like her with my eyes

on women and the twin trails of these headlights

lead to a future we have left just minutes behind

and I know this like I know my name. I am 14 and I

am praying, Please, no, not this, not one more thing

that makes me different, not one more reason

for them to stare and point. Later, I get out of the

car, slam the door on everything my mother won’t

tell me. I stand alone in the schoolyard, listening

to the thumps of boys and balls. The air against

my body is cold and I cannot imagine the warmth

of a lover who might wait for me, growing, as I am,

each minute older and more lonely. I do not know

that when I find her she will hold me like all my hurt

is precious, tight in the safety of her muscled and hairless

arms, I do not know the way she will help

to heal everything, but most of all

my mother’s long silence. And because I don’t know

the way her voice will sound, lips full around a song

she will whisper, the one my mother

has never sung, I sing it to myself.

You Can’t Get There from Here: Chapter Four


You Can’t Get There from Here

by Lyralen Kaye

Chapter Four

            The next night, after listening to Janet talk about Thomas and his negotiations with the priests—he’d agreed to pay a generous monthly stipend, but wanted to see Beth every other weekend—Erin called her friend Patti from the kitchen phone, and made plans to go to Collette’s Bar that Friday.

“I’m going nuts,” Erin said, wrapping the phone cord around her wrist and slinging one leg up over the low partition. “My Mom is either bitching or telling me about all the ways I can help her. Beth asked if I was gay. I’m thinking of heading to Mexico. Like, yesterday.”

Patti laughed, but her voice was serious when she offered to let Erin stay at her apartment. Erin declined. She just wanted to go out. She wanted, she told Patti, to get laid.

“Better watch it,” Patti said. “You’ve got a bit of rep around here.”

“Come on!”

“You always pick someone up.” Patti’s voice was dry. “Rachel hears about it.”

“I thought we’d been through this.” Erin tucked the phone between her shoulder and head, looked around to see if Janet were nearby.  “About Rachel, I thought I told you–”

“They call you a heartbreaker.”

Erin’s leg dropped to the floor. “What do you call me, Patti?”

Patti didn’t answer. The silence stretched between them until Erin started moving, her foot tapping the floor in regular beats, like a metronome.

“Patti? You’re my best friend. What do you call me?”

“I think you’re the queen of all exits,” Patti said. “But I didn’t mean to get you upset. Let’s just go and have fun, eh? Tell your mom you’re staying over if you want.”

Erin agreed. She hung up, pale eyebrows drawn together.

She spent the day going through her backpack and doing laundry. Late in the afternoon, she borrowed Janet’s car, drove over the bridge into Portsmouth, staring at the ice floes, the strong currents eddying dark in the gray light of winter. She parked in town, stopped to talk to a travel agent about Mexico. Then she went to the bank where she kept the money she’d earned during her two years in Japan—the most money she’d ever made in her life, and she’d managed to save nearly all of it. Once, she thought she saw a gold car snaking through traffic behind her, but she couldn’t be certain. When she’d left the house, Janet had been on the phone with Thomas’ lawyer, arranging visitation with Beth. Thomas would see her for the first time in over a month on Saturday, and had asked if Erin might come along.

“No way,” Erin said to Janet. “What does he think this is, old home week?”

Janet frowned. “Think of me,” she said. “And of your sister—”

“Forget it, Mom,” Erin said. Then she’d grabbed the car keys and headed for the door.

Now, she looked back over her shoulder. No gold car. But Thomas wanted her back, and Erin knew how he was. Apologies and gifts would follow her like a virus, as they had when she’d been studying in Paris. She had known then to send them back, to build a fortress of refusals. But this time she could feel the jacket he’d bought for her settling over her shoulders like a belief in love. She kept seeing his broken skin, the slack flesh around his jaw. She tried to steel her body back into strength, tried to tell herself she didn’t feel sorry enough for him to do what he wanted.

Before she drove home, Erin stopped at the Portsmouth mall, where, counting out the bills like days she was giving up in Mexican cities, she bought more Christmas presents for her mother and sister, the conservative sweaters and skirts Janet liked, new leather sneakers and an IPod for Beth along with a gift certificate for ITunes. Then, she bought a stereo for Patti’s truck.

Janet was in the kitchen when Erin came in. Her head was bent over a laptop, her blonde hair gathered back from her face with a scarf, a navy turtleneck hugging her chin. She looked up and smiled at Erin with just a small turn at the edge of her lips. Erin noticed the plea in her mother’s eyes just before Janet began to speak.

“I’m looking for a job,” Janet said. “I’m afraid it’s rather hopeless. I don’t even know what to do. Your father never wanted me to work.”

Erin stopped, raised a blonde eyebrow. “You want to get a job?”

Janet nodded. She looked back down at the laptop’s screen. “Beth’s in school,” she said. “And we’ll need money. There’s a job here, just temporary, at city hall. It’s on a computer, typing in records. They say they’ll train.”

“Email them,” Erin said.

Janet turned all the way around in her chair so she faced Erin, her arms upturned at her sides, her face open in appeal. “I don’t know how.  To write a resume.  Or what to say to them.” She looked at Erin from under her lashes. “Would you ever do it for me?”

Erin started to shake her head.

“Just this once? To find out what I should do?” Janet looked up into Erin’s face. “It’s so easy for you, Erin.”

Erin head tucked down toward her chest. She started to blow up her bangs, then stopped herself. She looked at her mother.

“Please?” Janet said. “It’s really hard for me.”

Erin looked at her mother for a long moment, her stomach tight with pity. She pulled up a chair, opened Word, and typed in her mother’s name, address and phone number.  “Tell me what you’ve done at the church in the last five years,” Erin said.  “That’s your job experience.”

Janet ticked off duties—household budgets, shopping, taking messages, scheduling home and hospital visits.

“And you do all this for free?” Erin asked, typing quickly.

“I’m happy to do what I can,” Janet told her.

Erin opened Gmail, created an account, taught her mother how to hit send.  She wrote an email and attached the resume.

“Thank you, Erin, really,” her mother answered. “I never could have done that.”

“You can do it now,” Erin said.

“I don’t know.”

Erin began to pick a thread out of the fraying cuff of her leather jacket. “I may not be here next time.”

“You could be,” Janet said.

“I’m heading to Mexico after–”

“And you’re a good daughter to help your mother,” Janet told her. “Thank you.”

Erin frowned. “I’m not a good anything,” she answered.

Janet stared, her cameo face stripped of artifice, vulnerable. Her hands clasped and unclasped on the table top, so Erin sighed, then explained how to save the resume into a file folder, how to attach it, how to make changes if the job had a different focus, the words like gates trying hard to stay closed. Janet’s green eyes grew wide as Erin handed her a pen, made her take notes. For a moment, Erin wanted to touch her mother’s hair, hold her as she would a child, say it would be alright. She clenched her fists. She couldn’t afford to love her mother, couldn’t afford to remember that once, after days of grounding and hitting Erin, Janet had gone to a parenting class at church and had come home with an assignment to tell Erin what she loved most about her. Voice thin with effort, she’d told Erin she loved her protectiveness, the way Erin always noticed when something was wrong. Erin had been sure, when Janet reported back to the parenting class, that her mother would get an A, but what Erin remembered was the strain, as if saying anything good about her daughter cost effort, as if it were work. Another time, when Erin was a teenager, Janet had come up behind her in the bathroom, touched the long strands of Erin’s hair, let the pale red-gold silk drift through her fingers, and said the word pretty. Both times, Erin fell inward, collapsing into the detonating force of her mother’s approval, the desire to hold it, to find an way to inhabit that brief moment forever. But almost immediately she felt the moorings of her life begin to disappear. Without the familiar structure of anger and distance, Erin thought she might fade away completely.

Now, she dug her fingernails into her palms. She finished the job instructions, picked up the bags of presents, and walked up the stairs to her room, thinking of Patti’s moon face, her stubborn chin. Erin couldn’t wait for the evening to come. For the first time in days, she might be around people who possessed some form of sanity.

*                        *                        *

Erin left the house at nine, telling her mother and sister she was going out and wouldn’t be home until the next day. Identical frowns creased both their faces. When her father had lived there, and Erin came to visit, no one had ever spoken about when Erin came and went, where she slept. But now four tiny lasers circled Erin all the time, trying to hold her in place. She walked down the gravel driveway in darkness, thinking of the maps tucked into her backpack like tickets—to the beaches of Cancun, the ruins and waterfalls in the jungles of the Yucatan.

Patti’s truck was parked at the end of the road. Opening the door, Erin slid into the cab next to Patti’s new lover, a woman she hadn’t really met, only seen asleep the first night she’d arrived. Older, gray haired, the woman had a face so young it shone. Patti’s lovers were always at least ten years her senior; they always left Patti at the first sign of trouble. Now, Erin looked over the woman’s shoulder at Patti and grinned mischief, her nose crinkling. Patti started to protest, shaking her head.

“You’re a lot younger than Patti’s last girlfriend,” Erin said to the woman.

Patti’s lover turned. “Really? Tell me about her. Patti won’t.”

“Shut up, Erin,” Patti said. “Older women are great.”

“That’s why I like you.” The woman leaned over and kissed Patti on the cheek before turning back to Erin. “You don’t agree?”

“Erin’s an equal opportunity lover,” Patti said. “Over-twenty females is her only criterion.”

“We’re not talking about me,” Erin said. “We’re talking about your ex.” Erin turned to look at the gray-haired woman. “She was a jerk, that’s why Patti doesn’t like to talk about her. She left, what, two days after your grandmother’s funeral?” Patti glared, but Erin continued. “And Patti’s grandmother was the only one who still talked to her then.” Erin lifted an eyebrow, kept her eyes on the woman’s face. “We’d hate to see something like that happen again. I mean, Patti’s got the most generous heart of anyone I’ve ever known.”

The woman stared at Erin.

“Ignore her,” Patti said. “She gets really obnoxious after she sees her family. Plus, she thinks she’s my mother. Make sure you get her permission if you every want to ask for my hand in marriage.”

“I think it’s terrible that anyone did that to you,” the woman said, laying a hand on Patti’s arm. “You should have told me.”

“That’s what we want to hear,” Erin said, relaxing against the seat.

“Yeah,” Patti said. “Right. Can we talk about something else, please?” She frowned at Erin, muttering her heart wasn’t so generous she wouldn’t consider a well-placed kick to shut a certain person up, but then Erin smiled and her pale eyes held Patti’s affectionately until her friend’s face softened.

“Okay,” Patti said, turning her eyes to the road. “I’m a fucking saint. Now what else is new? Really.”

The rest of the ride was punctuated with loud laughs from Patti and her partner as Erin told the story of her mother asking Erin to help her get a job.

“Maybe I should go to the interview in disguise,” Erin said. “In drag, most likely. Pretending I’m her.”

Patti hunched over the steering wheel, laughing, but when they parked in downtown Portsmouth and got out of the truck, Patti touched Erin’s arm. “You alright?”

“My father gets to see Beth tomorrow morning,” Erin whispered.

“Shit,” Patti said, shoving a clump of thick hair behind her ear. “You better not be there. Want to have breakfast at my house? If you can keep your mouth shut, that is.”

“I’ll be good,” Erin said. “I just do it because I love you, you know.”

“Yeah, yeah. Family sucks and lovers leave.” Erin held up her hand; Patti high-fived her. An awkward silence filled the truck.  “It’s just something we say,” Patti told her girlfriend.

“After her last girlfriend, you can see why,” Erin explained.

The woman looked from one of them to the other. “Okay,” she finally said. “Whatever.”

They pulled into the parking lot and got out of the truck.

“How to win friends and influence people,” Erin whispered to Patti.

“Fuck you,” Patti whispered back.

“In your dreams,” Erin said. “Now go make up with your girl.”

They walked into the half-light of the bar. From upstairs the sound of guitars and women’s voices floated down like smoke, but the ground floor fanned noise forward from pool tables in the back toward an empty dance floor up front. Erin breathed deeply, slid through the women at the bar and bought three beers and a shot of tequila. She tossed the shot back as soon as the bartender put it in front of her, took a breath that ignited the burn in her throat, then carried the beers to Patti and her lover, whose heads bent toward each other, talking intently. Erin handed them their beers, then backed away.

She went to the pool table, signed up to compete. Erin racked up, knocked three stripes in, dominated the first game. And she kept winning, so long after Patti and her lover had made up and gone to talk to friends, Erin still bent over the table, the cue’s narrow tip staining her fingers chalk blue. She’d been drinking all along, lining up her beer bottles on a wall shelf to keep track. By the fourth game, she’d had seven.

In between games, she’d move out of the light and lean on her pool cue, one hip jutting out, her T-shirt pulled tight over her breasts. A ball of heat grew in her belly as she watched the women. Sometimes, when one walked by, she’d make eye contact, a smile breaking surface on her face. One woman stared at her, frowning; Erin swore at her softly, turned back to the pool table, but underneath the breath of cold, she could feel warmth. She played another game and won, then asked for a break. She walked to the bar, conscious of her movements. She surveyed the room quickly. A woman was watching, her eyes dark in a face that shone copper and brown. Spain, Erin thought, Latina. The woman started walking toward Erin, her movements slow as summer.

Erin leaned back against the wooden lip of the bar, stretched out her legs. When she took the woman’s hand into hers, gave the woman her name, breath eased out of her mouth in one long slow sigh.

“I’m playing pool,” Erin said. “I’ll be done soon. Then we can dance.”

“Don’t you forget.” The woman cocked her head to one side. One hand touched the end of Erin’s braid.

Erin tipped her head to the side. “No worries,” she said.

Back at the pool table, her first shot sent three balls into corner pockets. She won easily. Occasionally, she looked up into the line cast by the other woman’s gaze, let it reel her a step forward.  Then, near the end of the game, she spun around and saw Rachel at the bar, dark curls falling over a thin face with its pointed chin and delicate bones—a face that looked only slightly different than Erin remembered, a little older, less innocent, but still open, Erin thought, still carrying that odd mixture of intelligence and bewilderment, as if the world Rachel longed for was just out of reach.

Erin didn’t know what to do. She hadn’t seen Rachel since they’d both graduated college, hadn’t really talked to her since they’d broken up in their sophomore year. Rachel lifted a bottle of mineral water, drank. Her face, with its sharp and asymmetrical bones, was too oddly shaped for prettiness, but her deep set-eyes were beautiful. She watched Erin without smiling and lifted a hand.

Erin signaled she’d come over and talk, then went back to the pool game. She’d been leading by four balls, but she lost badly, missing every shot. She stood staring at the floor, memorizing its cigarette burns and beer stains, turning the cue around and around in her hand. When the game was over, she high-fived the woman who’d beaten her, a wry twist to her lips. Then she walked across the room to Rachel, smiling first at the woman who waited for her near the dance floor.

“Still the same?” Rachel asked, her head tilted toward the woman.

“Rach,” Erin said, softly. “Does it matter?”

Rachel looked up, and their eyes met. Erin felt heat rising in her face. She started rubbing her own pale arm with blue-stained fingers, leaving behind streaks and dust.

“I’m sorry,” Erin said suddenly. “You know I am.”

“Let’s not do this,” Rachel told her. Then she sighed and tried to smile. “What country you in from anyhow?”

“Spain.”

“So tell me about it. How come they got gay marriage if they’re so Catholic?”

Erin started explaining the country, the women she’d known. Rachel wanted to know about Judaism in Spain, about the history of the Inquisition and the effects of the Holocaust, how the European Union had changed the culture. Erin answered her questions, feeling the slide into familiarity, something she couldn’t afford: warmth, the light of ideas in Rachel’s eyes, the remembered feel of small hands on her face, the way Rachel’s fingers had whispered over the bruises that stained the oblong plates of Erin’s quadriceps, thighs, shoulders, back. Rachel had hidden Erin in her bedroom late at night, after Thomas had thrown Erin from his house, made love to Erin as if her skin might break if Rachel didn’t touch her so gently. At the end of high school, Erin had lived with Rachel’s family until she could move to Provincetown for the summer.

“I wish you could see these places,” Erin said.

Rachel looked away. “Sometime,” she answered.

“My mother kicked my father out of the house,” Erin said. “That’s why I’m here.”

Rachel turned to face her. “Oh Erin,” she said.

“He wants to see me.”

“Why? He in the mood to break someone’s arm?”

Erin’s shoulders curved forward.

Rachel reached out a hand, put it over Erin’s longer and paler fingers. “I’m sorry, but I saw what you looked like after he hit you, remember?”

Erin wanted to lean into Rachel, give over all the tiredness that hovered just under her skin. A mistake, she thought. I keep making the same mistake. Then she felt a hand on her elbow. She followed its pressure, looked into the dark eyes of the woman she’d picked for the night. Her body went cold.

“Go ahead,” Rachel said.

Erin looked at her.

“It’s okay.” Rachel let her fingers brush so lightly over Erin’s that Erin wasn’t sure if they’d actually touched her or not. “Just be careful at home, all right? Take care of yourself.” Then she turned away.

Erin’s pale eyes followed her, stunned. But when the other woman took her hand, Erin walked out onto the dance floor. She glanced back to where Rachel was standing. Some woman had come to join her. Their heads bent close; they kissed.  Erin lifted her head and felt each small mirror of the strobe light bounce off her skin. She began to dance. When the woman reached for her, held her waist with both hands, Erin let herself slide forward. Rachel had someone, didn’t she? It didn’t matter what Erin did now.

*                        *                        *

They kissed in the bar, then outside, in the shadows of a Portsmouth alley, their hands inside each other’s coats, searching for skin. Their breath steamed into each other’s mouths. Erin thought, Now, here, I don’t care about anything. But the woman was already pulling away, laughing, leading Erin to her car, a Honda with Massachusetts plates. They began to make love on the leather seats, their clothing opening under each other’s fingers. Erin tried to push Rachel’s face from her mind—the tangle of dark curls, the stubborn off-center chin, but it hovered even as Erin moved her mouth over the other woman’s breasts, as she shut her eyes, leaned back, let herself move into forgetfulness.

When it was over, Erin hungered for more, for the woman’s skin, rich and textured, for a deeper erasure of Rachel’s touch, of her parents’ voices. They went to Patti’s, where the door was open, a note left for Erin to be quiet. They spoke only in whispers, going to the kitchen for hot drinks, but as the woman backed Erin up against a counter their breathing grew deep, exhales coming with force, like wind, like tides. Erin’s mug crashed onto the tiled floor; she heard Patti’s voice in the bedroom. The woman asked if she should stop, but Erin waited only a moment, and when Patti didn’t appear, pulled the woman’s body against her own.

Finally, toward morning, they fell asleep. Erin woke to the woman kissing her good-bye. She watched the long slow movements of the woman’s body as she dressed, as she walked to the door. They didn’t ask for each other’s number. Erin lay back down, tossed her braid out from under her shoulder, and went back to sleep.

You Can’t Get There from Here: Chapter Three


You Can’t Get There from Here

by Lyralen Kaye

Chapter Three

Janet cleaned incessantly for the next two days, walked with her feet pounding on the wood floors, staccato, like a soldier’s.

“You’re a great help,” Janet said, staring into Erin’s eyes. “Sleeping all day. And don’t blow up your bangs at me all exasperated.”

“I have jet lag,” Erin said.  She pulled her lower lip back in, tried to breathe through her nose.

Janet pushed past her with a hard nudge. “And you don’t want to hear about your father. Which is just fine, Erin. But your turn will come. He knows you’re here, and I’m sure you’re next on his hit list.”

“What is going on?” Erin asked. She didn’t really want to know, of course. And she certainly didn’t want another conversation about Thomas, especially since he’d been skipping his nightly vigil.

“I have responsibilities,” Janet said. “Not everyone in this world is Miss Carefree. I have bills to pay, did you ever think of that?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Erin said.

“You should,” Janet told her, turning her back and walking away. “You’re part of this family.”

“News to me,” Erin called after her mother. “I didn’t know I was part of anything,”

Janet didn’t respond. Erin blew up her bangs. She would have thought that her mother would feel calmer, now that Thomas was gone. Janet should be glad not to have to talk about him, think about him, see him. But her mother, through the days that followed, continued to complain about money, raise her voice over small disputes, and clean. In the evenings, she went to her room and read romance novels with steamy covers. Sometimes she called out for Beth or Erin to bring her things: cups of tea, Heath Bars, ice cream. They answered quickly, carrying food to her room like supplicants.

On the fourth day, Beth looked up at Erin with a plea in her eyes. Dark blonde hair fell over her shoulders, held back with a child’s pink barrette, but her eyebrows pleated together in one thick, worried line. Erin could refuse her nothing. They played game after game of Parcheesi, Monopoly, and Pokemon. On a long walk, passing over the frozen rafts of earth, crusted with salt and old frost, Beth led Erin to a neighbor’s house, where they played on an old trampoline, jumping first together, bouncing each other up into a sky promising snow. Erin, laughing, almost fell; she reached out and grabbed her sister’s hands. Beth pushed Erin over, then crawled off the tramp to stand beside it. She stuck out her tongue. Erin returned the gesture.

“Turn a flip,” Beth said.

Erin, shivering in her leather jacket, stood up and jumped on the canvas. She shook her head. “It makes me nervous,” she told her sister.

Beth crossed her arms over her chest, stared up into Erin’s face, her small jaw, so like her father’s, set stubbornly. “I thought you weren’t afraid of anything,” Beth called, her voice loud even in the wind. “That’s right, isn’t it?”

Erin stared. “I’m just a little butch,” she said under her breath, “Not some hero.” But she jumped higher, listening to the creak of the springs. With one last push, she turned in the air, and fell flat on her back, body spread like a snow angel over the faded green canvas. All breath left her lungs. Beth crawled up and looked down at her.

“Happy?” Erin asked, reaching out a hand so Beth could pull her up. Erin looked directly into her sister’s eyes. “Am I still the great fearless hero?”

“You are.” Beth jumped down and started walking toward the ocean. “You just go away too much.”

Erin didn’t answer. She ran to catch up, stared into her sister’s face with its turned-up nose and spattering of freckles, wincing, remembering the time, when Beth was six, she’d told Erin she didn’t like her anymore; she didn’t even care if Erin never came back.

“Is it because you’re gay?” Beth asked.

“What?” Erin stopped walking and put one hand on her hip. “How the hell do you know that?”

“I heard that butch thing you said.” Beth stuffed her mittened hands further into the pockets of her down jacket and bent her head. “And I hear you on the phone when you talk to your friends. Besides, you’re pretty old to never have a boyfriend. And you’re not ugly or anything. You have the most beautiful color hair in the world. Mom says it’s strawberry blonde.”

“I’m glad you don’t think I’m ugly.” Erin’s voice was gentle. “But I don’t leave because I’m gay, Bethie. I just like to see different places.”

Beth shot her a disbelieving look.

“Okay,” Erin said.  “And I don’t want to live near Mom and Dad.”

They walked for a while, dirt and ice crunching under their boots, the wind whistling against Erin’s upturned collar, reddening her ears and face. Beth’s eyes pooled blankly forward, toward the hard surface of the earth.

“What?” Erin finally asked.

“You don’t want to live near me?”

“Of course I want to live near you.”

“And will I be gay?” Beth turned and faced her sister. “Does it happen if you don’t like your Dad?”
“Whoa.” Erin pulled her jacket tighter around her. “There’s nothing wrong with being gay,” she said. “And if you were, you’d probably know. I did. When I was little, even. I liked Dad a lot, then. Better than Mom.”

“Oh,” Beth said, hunching further into her jacket. Dark wisps of blonde hair escaped the wool threads of her pink hat. She didn’t speak again until they were almost home.

Erin watched her, tried to tell her stories of Asia and Europe, of running with the bulls at Los San Fermines in Pamplona, of the way the patios in Cordoba looked in the spring, blanketed by flowers and the smell of Ducados cigarettes with their tobacco negro, red wine spilled on flagstones by the strangers that moved from one house to another. Erin moving among them, transfixed by language, Spanish spilling from her tongue, the light of candles falling over her face. Or the lanterns at O-Ban, the Japanese festival of the dead, and the lines of people dancing in a street lit by flickering flames, carrying altars and singing. Beth kept walking, her head down. Finally, as they crossed the back yard on the way to their house, Beth slid her mittened hand into Erin’s pocket.

“You’re my sister,” she said. “I love you no matter what. So you should just come home. You don’t have to live in our house. Other sisters get apartments near their families.”

Heat pricked the backs of Erin’s eyes. She squeezed Beth’s hand. “Never give up, do you?”

“No.”

Erin chased her sister into the house, tracking snow over her mother’s spotless floors, snow Beth ran to clean up as soon as they stopped laughing.

*                        *                        *

That night Erin saw the Buick again, this time closer to the house, close enough so she could see Thomas’ streak of red hair. Upstairs, her mother and Beth slept together in the king size bed in Janet’s room, ostensibly because Beth had been having nightmares, but also, Erin knew, because Janet wanted comfort. Erin watched the way her mother pulled Beth close, held Beth against her body. Erin tried to say something to her mother about Beth needing to receive comfort, not give it, but she hadn’t been able to finish the sentence. Janet had stared her down. So now, watching out the window, Erin felt anger rise through her body until even her veins and capillaries grew hot. She grabbed her coat, and walked out to the running car.

She stood outside the driver’s side window, exhaling white steam that mingled with the clouds of exhaust, looking down at her father’s face. He snored, his mouth open, his head tilted off the headrest. Skin hung loose around his square jaw, marked by new veins and broken blood vessels. His shirt was stained with brown splotches of bourbon, and a film of white dimmed the deeper red of his hair. Asleep, his body was a loose sack, even his beer gut grown emptier and smaller.

Bags and wrapping paper, boxes with ribbons, stood in piles on the back seat. Erin’s eyes passed over them, stopping at the bright yellow logo of Maine’s best leather shop. She caught her breath and stood absolutely still.

“Bastard,” she said. She rapped on the window with her knuckles.

Thomas didn’t respond.

She rapped again, this time louder. His head slipped down the seat. She cursed, kicked a stone that pinged up against the car. Then she opened the door and rolled the window down half-way.

“You’re not going to die here,” she told her father. She gave him a push, but instead of waking, he fell over, his body thudding against the seat. “Shit,” she said.

She closed the driver’s door and stood looking at the packages. Slowly, her fingers inched toward the back door handle. They touched the cold burn of metal. Opened the door. Then, quickly, before she could change her mind, she grabbed the yellow and white bag and opened it. Inside was leather, black and soft. She pulled out a jacket, then a pair of chaps.

“Shit,” she said. “Shit, shit, shit.” She held the jacket up against her chest: just her size. The crush of leather in her hands smelled like earth and the skin of animals, like wind and speed. Like him. He had known exactly what she would love, and he had bought it, probably the most expensive jacket in the store. She put the chaps in the bag, but held the jacket gently in her arms. In the front seat of the Buick, her father snored again, loudly.

Erin lay the jacket on top of the bag, then went back to the house. Taking off her boots, she walked quietly up the stairs to the attic, where she looked for, and found, the sleeping bag she had used for camping in high school. She carried it back downstairs, then sat in the living room with a sheet of white paper in her hand. After a few minutes, she started to write. She told Thomas if he wanted to see Beth, he should get his lawyer to call.  Parking in front of the house was stalking, and illegal. She’d call the police if he did it again. You shouldn’t drive when you’ve been drinking, she told him. You could kill yourself.

Erin folded the paper, picked up the sleeping bag, and went to the car, where she covered her father with army surplus green, her hands smoothing the ribs of down and tucking them over his shoulders. She put the letter on the dash and lifted the leather jacket to fold it. But once it was in her arms, its quilted lining against her cheek, she shrugged the old jacket from her shoulders and let it fall to the ground. She put the new one on. It fit. Perfectly.

She stood still, looking at her elongated reflection in the back seat window—red-gold bangs over a pale forehead, the black collar of the jacket triangling against her cheek, silver zippers stretched across her chest, eyes frowning over the strong bones of her nose. She could imagine the swing of her leg over the padded seat of a motorcycle, feel the call of speed and road.

Inside the car, her father snored. She exhaled, blowing up her bangs, then stopped, seeing the stubborn set of her own jaw in the car window. She thought of Janet. Don’t blow your bangs up at me. Erin swore, pulled the jacket off, folded it, and shoved it in the bag. Shivering, her old jacket under her arm, she ran back to the house, braid flapping against her back, her boots thudding against the sharp points of gravel.

Thomas was gone the next morning, but Erin found herself wandering restlessly through the house, trying to ignore the gravitational pull to the garage, where her father kept his Harley. Her feet moved of their own volition until she made her way to the garage door and opened it. Staring into the empty concrete room with its organized metal shelves and grease-stained floor, she thought about the rides they’d taken together before the night of the strippers, before everything went bad, Thomas’ wide back in front of her, her gloved hands on the sissy bar of the bike. She could see his thick hands zippering her first leather jacket, his voice soft as he instructed her on how to sit, how to strap the helmet securely. He’d taught her how to lean into a curve, how to ride fast, the wind against their skin, the world opening into possibility. She’d looked up into his blue eyes, the network of broken blood vessels across his pug nose, and seen the world he could give her. He’d laughed, tossed her in the air without warning, and she’d known, with her legs flying above her head, what love felt like. He used to say she was better than the son he’d wanted, tougher, because she never cried or complained or whined; because she sat with his friends in bars and learned their jokes, because she could catch a fly ball or a line drive, could throw a football high and true, because, in her father’s eyes, she was afraid of nothing.

Had she known, standing in the circle of warmth that surrounded his body, unable to tell him about Janet and the punishments that came every time Janet’s face wore that pinched look, the one that pushed up the sharp corners of her bones around her eyes and colored them red, that he was not what he seemed? Standing in the garage doorway, she could see the pride in his eyes, feel his arms lifting her up, remember the seriousness and care in the way he taught her to ride. She could feel the wild freedom of the bike. Her throat closed so tight it was hard to breathe.

“It was the first thing he took,” Janet said, coming up so quietly Erin hadn’t noticed. “You, of all people, should have known that.”

Erin jumped and turned around to face her mother. Janet stood looking up at Erin, her face lit by its own pale translucence, shining out from the shadows, an accusation.

“He also took the contents of our savings account. The morning after you got here. I went to the bank and found nothing,” Janet said. “Now I don’t have money for Christmas.”

“The day after I chased him off?” Erin asked.

“He’s trying to get even,” Janet said.  “I told you.”

“He might have bought presents—”

“I don’t care what he bought, he took my money.” Janet tapped her foot on the floor. “He spends it like water.”

“I know.” Erin knew he had always spent it on her.

“Maybe if you talked to him—”

“No,” Erin said.

“That’s what he wants, Erin, for you to like him again—”

“No.”

“Then would you please tell me what you think I’m going to pay bills with—”

“Go to the bank. Now. Cash in a couple of the CD’s that are in both your names. Open a new checking account in your maiden name. There’s got to be money in the checking accounts, right?”

Janet nodded.

“Take it. Then tell the bank you’ve separated and he’s not to get into your accounts. Or better, open new accounts somewhere else.” Erin looked at her mother. “Can you do that?”

Janet’s face paled. Erin waited, her blue-jeaned legs so tense they lifted her almost to her toes. Janet opened her mouth, closed it, then opened it again. “Can’t you go—”

“You’re the only one who can do it.”

Janet stared.

“Sorry,” Erin told her. “But it’s got to be your signature.”

“What will he do?” Janet asked.

“Why do you always worry about that?”

“I know what he’s capable of.” She turned away, crossing her thin arms over her chest, blonde head bent. “You’ve never had to be afraid of anything, Erin, but not everyone has it as easy as you do—”

“Stand up to him,” Erin interrupted. “And for Christ sakes call your lawyer.”

“He’s always busy.”

“Then get a new one,” Erin said. “And think of some subtle threats to get Dad to return some of your money.” Erin shrugged. “You’re better at that than I am. You know what he can’t afford to lose.”

Janet lifted her head. Her green eyes held Erin’s. “You were always the one he loved.”

Erin stared, then stepped back and slammed the garage door.

“You’re what he doesn’t want to lose.”

“Bullshit.”

“When you were little—”

“That’s over.”

“I remember when you thought your father was the best thing in the world.”

“I remember when he started hitting me.”

Janet shrugged. “That wasn’t until you were a teenager. He never loved anyone the way he loved you. I should know.”

“I didn’t do anything…I didn’t try—

“I know that.” Janet turned on her heel. Then she looked back.  “I don’t blame you.”

Janet didn’t wait for a response, not that Erin could have given one.  Her footsteps sounded against the wood floors with purpose. Erin wanted to call out, to tell her mother about the gifts in Thomas’ car stacked like offerings, like a currency he did not yet know would never buy him entry back into their lives. She wanted to say, Don’t make me hurt him, but all she could do was watch the slender white of her mother’s back as it turned the corner, moving out of sight.

You Can’t Get There from Here: Chapter 2


You Can’t Get There from Here

by Lyralen Kaye

Chapter Two

“You’re nuts,” Patti said as Erin stuffed clothes and toiletries into her backpack. “You’re welcome here.”
“She wants me to help her,” Erin said. “And I said I would.”

“Why should you do anything for her?” Patti sat down on the edge of the couch, her gray sweatshirt bunching around her middle. She ran one hand through her thick black hair; it stood up in new clumps when she was done. “She’s been a bitch to you forever.”

“I feel sort of responsible,” Erin answered. “For Beth.”

“But you know how you get, Erin.  She uses Beth against you, and then you freak—”

“I barely even know my own sister, do you realize that? Seeing her once a year doesn’t exactly cut it.” Erin dug her nails into her palms.

Patti sighed. “My mother and brother decided to start speaking to me earlier this year. You know how long it’s been? Since that time they kicked me out and you had to rescue me in high school. I was stupid enough to get excited about seeing them. After five minutes of civil conversation they had a lot to say to me. Most of it was about Sodom and Gomorrah.”

“I’m sorry,” Erin said.

“They call now. I got an answering machine to screen them out.” Patti looked down, started rolling up the sleeves of her sweatshirt. “Of course I still listen to their fucking messages. Hoping, you know? And it doesn’t do any good. It just tears your heart out.”

“It’s not so bad for me. I mean, about that. My mother just pretends I never told her I was gay.”

“You have other problems,” Patti said.

“My father’s gone. Maybe I can make things better. For Beth—”

“There’s Rachel,” Patti interrupted. “She still asks about you, God knows why. She has a new girlfriend. But we could have her over.”

“I was an asshole,” Erin said. “I’ve just never been any good at the long term thing. I bet she asks to make sure we won’t ever run into each other.”

“You’re as stubborn as you were when you were sixteen, you know that? You haven’t changed a bit.”

“Funny, I thought I’d mellowed. I’m at least willing to consider the possibility that I may not be right all the time. I mean, I wouldn’t mind being wrong about Rachel hating me. I wouldn’t mind being her friend.”

“Well, you’d never know it.” Patti stood up, took two steps across the living room, and picked Erin up by the waist. She swung her around while Erin laughed and yelled to be put down.

“What is it with you?” she said, laughing.

“Proving dominance,” Patti said. “I’m the alpha.”

“Dream on,” Erin said.

“Yeah, well you better be over here a lot, that’s all I’ve got to say,” Patti told her. “Your mother isn’t going to steal my yearly visit with you. There, I draw the line.”

“Me too,” Erin said. “If there’s a line to draw, that’s where I draw it.”

* * *

            That night, rolling around in her childhood bed, Erin couldn’t sleep. The moonlight from the window over the desk pushed past her eyelids, so she adjusted the blinds. Sitting for a moment on the edge of the bed, she listened to the silence of the house, the wind outside, the hum of an engine in the driveway. She grew still, listening. She hadn’t heard the car drive in over the gravel—maybe she’d been in the bathroom. Quietly, she pulled on her jeans, zipped them with cold fingers, shoved her feet into her boots. Her heels knocked loudly against the waxed floors as she walked down the hallway to the panel of glass at its end, the one that looked over the front of the house. Her father’s car sat in the driveway, its gold paint a touch of gilt against the leafless trees. Swearing, Erin stomped down the stairs. Flipping on light after light, she went to the window and pulled back the curtains. She imagined her father’s head turning, imagined he could see her there, her body fragmented by the small squares of glass, the bars of white wood.

She waited for a moment, then found her jacket and walked out the front door in hard deliberate strides. Ten feet from the front porch, she heard the click of gears shifting; the engine roared. The Buick—a company car as always, she was sure—started to pull away. She could just see the shape of her father’s head in the car’s shadowed interior. Stumbling over the gravel, her legs unsteady as stilts, Erin ran after it.

“Ever hear of a restraining order?” she screamed into the cold.

Her father drove down the dirt road, tires spewing up stones as he fishtailed, the red glow of his taillights trailing side to side. He skidded and nearly hit a tree. Erin gasped, standing in the night air, her jacket open, until the lights died like stars. She walked slowly back to the house, shrugging at Janet, who stood at the top of the stairs, a robe belted around her waist, face pinched, white and hungry.

“He was drunk,” Erin said, looking down into her mother’s frightened face. “He’s gone now. Go to sleep.”

“He’s gone?  Already?”

“If he keeps driving when he’s like that, he may be gone in more ways than one,” Erin said. “He won’t be back tonight. Tomorrow we can see about a restraining order.”

Janet shook her head. “I could never do that.”

“You have rights, Mom.”

“I have to live in the real world,” Janet said. “I can’t afford to just…confront him like that.”

Erin sighed. “Go to sleep,” she said. “Beth said you don’t get enough sleep.”

Watching Janet walk down the hall, Erin waited, then turned off the downstairs lights. Back in her childhood room, she undressed and sat on the edge of the bed, her breathing ragged. Looking out the window, she saw the curved scythe of moon. Sitting there, it seemed time faded, as if the past had its own gravity, as if the pull of that pale light reached for her across continents, across time. She shivered. Without thinking she began pulling at her old dresser drawers, looking for long underwear, sweatshirts, the clothes she’d worn after motorcycle rides. The clothes she’d put on after she’d driven her father home from the strip bar.

She froze, her fingers still clasping the bronze handle of a drawer. Deliberately pushing the drawer back in, she sat back on the bed, resisting the swift undertow of memory. She tried to concentrate on counting backward in Spanish—cien, noventai-nueve—it was no good. Between the numbers she couldn’t help listening, expecting to hear sounds—Thomas’ heavy stumbling footsteps, the drunken thud of his briefcase as it went down, or the roar of his motorcycle. She couldn’t help remembering how the meaning of those sounds had changed. Dad, she thought, just once, like a cry. Sitting there, in her old room, she couldn’t tell herself it didn’t matter that she’d lost him, it didn’t matter that once she had waited for his footsteps, that she had been warmed by the rough tenor of his voice growing louder as he yelled at her mother.  That she had thought he was on her side.

He had been. And somehow, that had caused everything, Erin thought, even the strippers. Though long before that night, she had heard Janet crying in the bedroom next door, the sound wild, more like an animal than a person. Predictable: the next day, after the crying, Janet would call loudly for Erin to get up, to vacuum, dust, polish silver, clean out the attic, rake leaves, one of a million tasks that had filled her days when she was too small to refuse. Erin had longed to be outside, to hide in the trees and wild grass, or fly over the mudflats, chasing the herons and egrets until they lifted up, their long legs dangling, then rising as their wings beat, heavy kites slow in the wind. She ran after them, leaping into the air, imagining a more permanent escape from the prison of their house. Erin didn’t want to think about the price she had paid for such escape: a paddle had hung on the kitchen wall on a special brass hook, its warped rectangular surface covered with black ink, surrounded by small drawings of animals in red. If the little deers don’t mind, the paddle read, hit them on their cute behinds.

Erin remembered Janet’s tight face, the way she’d stood, examining tables and trunks, the way she’d checked for dust under all the knickknacks and rapped Erin’s hands with the edge of the paddle for any mistake. She remembered Janet saying Erin was more trouble than ten normal children, why didn’t she just quiet down, quit asking questions, quit asking for books, for time, quit asking to go to museums, movies, libraries, plays? Why wasn’t Erin grateful for what she had? And Erin knew, remembering, that Janet had never said these things in front of Thomas.

One afternoon, Erin had run out of the house right after school and played in the marshes until dark. She could still see the fervent spread of sky, flaming upward in a mixture of orange and gray. She could feel the freedom in her small body as she reached up to touch the branch of a tree, as she pulled one stalk of marsh grass after another. Walking over the mudflats, she stripped off her shoes and pretended she was a girl in a book she’d read, rescuing a boat trapped in the water by walking lightly over mud flats that might sink at any moment from beneath her feet. She knew that she, like any girl in any country, could become a hero, someone for whom God had created a specific destiny. She could feel it in her body; the slender white of her bare feet growing blue with cold, her arms held out for balance with her shoes dangling over her shoulders, everything in her reaching, a girl poised for flight into the unknown, her face flushed with color, expectant.

When she came home, Janet was waiting, the skin on her face taut and pinched. She looked at Erin for a moment, and Erin tried to hide the freedom of the afternoon, wash it from her face. Janet’s eyes narrowed.

“What are you supposed to do after school?” Janet asked, her voice rising with each word. “Tell me, Erin.”

Erin took a step back. “Help you clean.”

Janet glanced at the mud-stained bottoms of Erin’s pants, the untied shoes with their dangling laces and yanked the paddle from its hook. She grabbed Erin’s arm, her face mottled and red. “And now you’ve left mud from the door to this room, haven’t you? Answer me! Haven’t you?”

Erin glanced quickly behind her. She saw a footprint back near the door. “I’ll clean it, I promise–”

“You are the most inconsiderate girl I’ve ever met! I would never treat my mother the way you treat me.”

The paddle swung down in a loose, wide arc. Instead of hitting her backside, it glanced off Erin’s skull with a sharp crack. She reeled, tripped, fell to her knees. Crouching, she gasped, looking up at her mother as Janet lifted an arm and hit her again, across the back.

“That’s what you get for disobeying me.” Janet held the paddle poised, half-lifted, at her side. “You will learn to do what I say.”

Erin curled tighter over her bent legs. Janet’s mottled face came closer. She gripped Erin’s arm, yanked her to her feet, began pushing her across the polished floors toward the closet.

“No,” Erin whispered. “Not again. Please, I’ll clean. I’ll do the dishes, I’ll—”

The closet door opened. Erin tripped over the vacuum cleaner as Janet pushed her inside. She sprawled as the door shut behind her. She turned over, pulled her knees to her chest. She began pushing against the floor with her feet, back, back, the floor under her buttocks moving until she could feel the wall at her spine, familiar, stationary. She inhaled, the fumes from bleach, ammonia, Lemon Pledge entering her lungs.

“You’ll stay in there until I say,” Janet called from behind the door.

Erin heard the chair pushed into place. Slowly, she stopped shaking. The scent of bleach pushed in at her until she started to fade. Her breathing slowed. Her arms clasped her knees. France, she said to herself. She closed her eyes, felt the world tilt, felt herself slip out of her body, out of the house until she was transparent, until she didn’t exist. France, she said again. It was the word she’d use to find her way back.

Later, the chair pushed away from the door with a loud scraping noise. The door opened. Erin’s eyes snapped open, then blinked against the light. Janet bent down, stretched out an arm. Outside, Erin heard the sound of a car motor shut off.

“Out,” Janet said. “If you know what’s good for you, you won’t go complaining to your father.”

Erin scrambled past her. Ran up the stairs to her room. She slammed the door, and stood with the jamb at her back, feeling its ridges against her muscles as she listened to her mother yelling, to her father’s footsteps on the stairs, heavy and slow. He opened the door of Erin’s room, turned on the light, brushing waves of red hair back from his wide Irish face. Looking up, Erin could see the faint cleft in the center of his nose. She grabbed hold of one of his legs with both arms and wouldn’t let go.

“You can’t fight with your mother, honey,” Thomas said.

She held him tighter.

His hand came down on the top of her head. She yelped, wincing. He touched the swelling on the crown of her head with the tip of a finger.

“What happened?” he asked.

Erin pushed her face into the cloth at his hip, burying her nose in the smell of beer and smoke. She inhaled deeply, taking the bar smells deep into her lungs.

“Erin?”

“Nothing,” she said.

“You can tell me,” he said. “We’re buddies, aren’t we?” He loosened her arms from his legs and picked her up. She wound her arms around his neck, trying not to cry, trying to be strong, motorcycle strong, as tough as he had always taught her how to be. He pushed her hair away from her face. “Let me get you some ice,” he said.

She heard his voice downstairs, swearing at her mother; she heard Janet’s voice rise, heard her own name. Then, a thud. She sat up, ears straining for any sound, but the silence lasted and lasted, stretching, it seemed, from her room to the kitchen. She heard Thomas swearing again, but this time, Janet didn’t answer. Soon, heavy feet pounded on the stairs, and Thomas returned, frowning, the blood high in his face. He carried a cloth bag full of ice and a towel.

“Erin,” Thomas said.

Erin didn’t answer.

“Erin,” her father said, sitting down on the bed. “What did your mother do?”

She leaned against his side, smelled the familiar mix of bourbon and starch, both embedded in his businessman’s shirt.

“I want to hear your side. I think I know already, but I want to hear.”

“Nothing.”

“Erin.”

“I played outside,” she said. “I got mud on the floor.”

“She hit you, didn’t she?”

Erin didn’t answer.

“Erin, I know she hit you.  Just nod your head.”

Erin looked up at her father.

“I knew it,” he said. “That fucking bitch.”

She flinched.

“I’m not mad at you,” Thomas said.

He touched her hair gently, finding the lump again. Erin rested against his lap as he held the ice in place. He spoke softly about where they’d go that weekend, all the way up to the border of Canada. They’d camp, even though it was cold. Maybe one of the other motorcycle riders he knew would bring a kid her age. Falling asleep to the sound of his voice making promises, Erin believed the deep tenor would block forever her mother’s arms coming down, the crack of wood against her body, and the closet door opening and closing, leaving her alone in that small hard world in the dark.

*                        *                        *

Erin sat on the edge of the bed, head heavy in her hands, temples pounding. She reached up, pushed the pads of her thumbs against her aching eyes. The memory of her father’s hands in her hair, his voice promising escape, made every cell in her body cry like a separate child. When she was little, she had believed he could cure anything. She had been wrong and now…now he was gone, leaving her with Janet, with two mothers—the one who’d hated her and the other, who now called her, said she wanted her near.

Erin could see, like a photograph hung on one of Janet’s white walls, her mother’s figure silhouetted against the back porch. Janet’s hands stayed hidden, behind her back, but her face was blotched red with rage, her eyes the green of algaed rocks, and just as hard. Blinking, trying to dispel the memory, Erin lay stunned, trying to dispel the memory. She wondered if she should go back to Patti’s. Outside, the world began to grow faintly light.

She dozed off at dawn, was awakened by Beth’s small hands pulling on her shoulders as Beth called her name, saying, you promised. Groaning, Erin got up. She held Beth’s hand tightly as they walked down the stairs to the kitchen, wanting to ask, to say something, but Beth smiled at her, looked up with her sea eyes clear of memory.

“Drink some coffee,” Beth said, standing on tiptoe to pull a mug from one of the cabinets. “Wake up, will you?” She slid across the tile floor and started tickling Erin.

Janet, sitting at the kitchen table with a checkbook in front of her, frowned. Erin couldn’t meet her eyes. Splashing cold water on her face at the sink, she muttered something about using the car. Then she grabbed the keys from Janet’s outstretched hand, and went for her leather jacket.

“She’s a bear in the morning,” Janet said to Beth. “Just like her father.”

“Right. I’m just like him,” Erin said.

“I didn’t mean that,” Janet said.  She reached out a hand, then dropped it as Erin slung her jacket over her shoulders.

“I’m going out the front, Bethie,” Erin said as she left the room.

Driving Beth to school in Janet’s car, she pulled her mother’s crucifix from the rear view mirror and put it in the glove box. Beth giggled.

“Listen,” Erin said. “I want to ask you something serious.”

“Okay.” Beth pulled one leg up to her chest and held on tight.

“Has Mom ever…punished you?”

“She grounds me sometimes. But mostly we get along. Only now she always wants me to sleep in her bed when Dad comes and…you know. And sometimes she doesn’t talk for a whole day. Or she yells.” Beth stared out the window, began pulling at a loose thread at the top of her knee sock.

“But she doesn’t hit you?”

Beth shook her head, kept pulling at her sock. “Mom’s okay, Erin. Really. You just have to be careful when she’s in a bad mood.”

Erin’s shoulders relaxed. She poked her sister. “I came home so you’d have someone to talk to,” she said to Beth. “Unless you’ve started talking to the furniture, going loca on me.”

“Say something in Spanish. Say something really long.”

“Mi hermana es muy pequeníta, pero habla todo el dia de qualquier cosa, incluso sus novios. Ella tiene veinte mil novios, cada uno muy celoso.”

“What’s that?”

“I said that you’re the size of a mouse, but you talk all the time and have twenty thousand boyfriends who are all very jealous.”

“You did not!”

Erin smiled, pulled the car to the side of the road and picked up her sister’s friends at their bus stop, laughed and answered their questions, let them play rap music on the radio. Their plaid uniformed bodies packed tight in the back seat of the car blurred in the rear view mirror to a panel of blue and gold. Finally, she pulled up at the school.  Beth, before she got out of the car, leaned over and quickly kissed Erin on the cheek. Smiling into Erin’s long gaze, Beth’s face was lit as only a child’s could be. Erin sat still, holding the image of her sister’s sea eyes, her thick brows, turned-up her nose, remembering Beth as a toddler, the high sounds of her laughter, the way she’d run across a room to Erin as if the source of love was found in her sister’s arms. Remembering, Erin wanted to believe Beth had grown up unscathed, that Beth, running over the mud behind their house, had never returned to beatings or closets.

Janet was sitting at the kitchen table when Erin walked in the house. Half hidden by a low partition, the phone at her right hand, she looked like an injured bird, head down, slender shoulders hunched beneath her blouse. The defeat eroded the image of the night before, until the memory of the taut spine, the open closet door, turned to shadow and all Erin could feel, looking at her mother, was pity. Hadn’t it always been this way? Thomas appeared and Janet became someone small and defenseless, someone Erin was bound to defend, no matter the cost. But afterward Janet returned to herself, to the mother Erin knew, beauty the veil over a woman hard with duty, who arrived promptly for parent conferences, sat upright in church, and believed in being a lady, keeping her problems to herself. Erin looked at her mother’s back, at the low wall between them, the hook where the paddle had hung, now strung with patchwork oven mitts. The shining surfaces of the kitchen reflected back emptiness like a thousand mirrors. Erin hesitated, but then Janet lifted her head; Erin saw the two telltale spots of color on her mother’s pale cheeks. She froze. When Janet opened her mouth to speak, Erin turned quickly and walked away before she could hear what her mother had to say.

A few hours later she woke to the sound of vacuuming. Putting a pillow over her head, Erin tried to go back to sleep. Sounds of cupboard doors opening and shutting, of low heels on wood floors, of banging pans, penetrated the soft down over her ears. She got up, showered, put on jeans and a T-shirt. Grabbing her leather jacket and a couple pieces of fruit, she walked out of the house into the dead blades of marsh grass, the smell of salt. Shivering, the sweet tang of apple in her mouth, she reached up once to touch a tree, but the mystery had gone; she was only cold. Sighing, she hoped by the time she got home Janet would be over it, whatever it was.

Ayurvedic Cleanse, Day 4: Surrender and…Being Female


I felt my body give in.  Just a noticeable shift…I will stop fighting you.  And then the intuition that instead of ending the cleanse early tonight, I’ll extend and do the purgation on Sunday night and end on Monday when I have a day off.  Meaning, on Monday I’ll eat rice, and then on Tuesday I start reintegrating foods.

So, I’m sitting here burping rice bran oil with a sense of serenity.

Hey, if it can happen for me, it can happen for anyone.  (Of course, the day is just starting and it has therapy in it, yuck, but probably good, because the anniversary of Don’s death is approaching and I miss him so much.)

Anyhow, with surrender comes a question–who taught me to be a woman?  I mean, I’m working with men and have asked them who taught them to be a man, and what that lesson was…with surprising results, I might add; and I’ve read this new book about it, that adds to my collection of men’s movement literature.

In the men’s movement, the premise is that only a man can initiate another man into manhood.  The unhappiness of so many men, they say, is the absence of a connection to their fathers.  To make happier men, we must make better, more loving, more available and connected fathers.

I get that.

But what about women?

I find that many of the women of my generation did not admire their mothers, did not feel positively connected, and did not want to follow their mothers’ paths into womanhood.  Low end jobs, being a housewife, lacking power in the world, dependence on a husband–the women of my generation sought a different life, including equal partnerships with men, whether or not they were able to find them.  And for those of us who are queer, the path was unbroken–not that there weren’t brave people forging the way ahead of us, but that being fully out was rare.  Just being out and being with another woman started us into the garden…

I always crack jokes about my German mother.  When I’m not cracking jokes about my inappropriate Irish father.  And while I don’t want to do a stroll down childhood lane, with all its monsters and heroes, it seems important to look at who taught me to be a woman, and what it means to be a female.

I love being a woman.  People perceive me as powerful, and I have all this experience of being with men, and disliking my own vulnerability, and hating to process (I mean, I HATE to process), which is hardly typical.  But for me being female is about getting to love beauty without hiding, being intuitive, and inward, and into flow, listening to the world, loving with sensitivity, being utterly receptive, easily moved by what’s around me…it’s about getting to embody the feminine principle without shame.  I may not like to be openly vulnerable with many people, but I love the tides of emotions, and how they rise, fall, open you to newness, to landing in right now.  I love getting to change my mind, and how I am, truly, in my essential nature, endlessly fluid, airy and mutable.

I also love the little give in my body when my partner, who nurtures me in a very masculine way, opens my car door, or takes my hand, or looks into my face with a very particular strength–it’s a sexual thing, responding naturally to masculinity–I mean, I am so very yin, when you uncover me.  And there is power in that…I love the power in femininity.  The confidence of being a strong, intelligent woman, who no one better f&*k with.  I love friendships with other women, the kind of friendship in which nothing is hidden…I’ve gotten to have that, over and over, in my nomadic life.

But I don’t know who taught me to love being a woman.  My father contradicted himself constantly–sometimes treating me like a boy/tomboy as we hung out with his friends–in those moments, he told me the world was mine to claim.  But if I crossed some invisible line, suddenly I was a girl and not equal any more.  My mother believed that women should never compete with men, should shore up men’s egos, hide their intelligence.  She also thought that women were catty and untrustworthy and didn’t have close female friends.  My mother didn’t join the women’s movement when it came along, and never moved beyond a secretarial position though she was noticeably intelligent and had a college degree.  I’m not sure what she felt to be her life’s purpose, or that she would have told me if she knew.  We just didn’t get along most of the time; and she wasn’t much for confidences of that nature, period.

I had female advocates and mentors outside the family right along–teachers, mostly.  I saw women who were strong, who did what they believed in…and those who didn’t.  But if I think of who taught me how to be a woman, I go to Maria Dolores Garcia Fraile in Sevilla, Spain.  Maria Dolores had left her husband in Catholic Spain in the late 1970’s/early 1980’s, after Franco.  He was cheating on her; she thought she deserved better, so she kicked him out and began to take in American students for income.  She had dark hair with dark gold highlights dyed in, stood as tall as me (I’m 5’8″), with olive skin, and green eyes blurred by the beginning of cataracts.  She taught me to dance Sevillana in her kitchen, and I’ll never forget that–the turn of our hands in the air, the challenge and sexuality of the dance, of her, but no attraction, just a woman who owned her power, her selfhood, her life force and sexuality, effortlessly, with pleasure.  She had courage, Maria Dolores.  From the beginning, I bonded to her as I never had with my own mother, and if there was a rite of passage to be had, she led me through.  She never said these words to me overtly, though we talked about our lives in great detail once my Spanish improved, but this is the message I received:  Make your own life.  Leave who you have to leave, bear what you have to bear, but bear it with pride, with the pride of knowing who you are, with your passions and your ability to love intact because you have not betrayed yourself and in some way you never will.  Love being a woman for its richness, for being able to ground down into feeling, for being able to create life, and a life, in whatever way you do so.  Go.  Go find out what the world has for you.

It was quite a send-off, when my year with her ended.  She didn’t want me to return to my family because she knew my parents were bad for me, but she didn’t hold me, either.  I was 23.

I remember her lesson because it was the one I chose, because I wanted someone to believe in me who knew me intimately, like a mother, and she was that person.  Metta for you, Maria Dolores.  In this moment of remembering.  On this day.  For all you gave me.  You were an emotionally generous woman, and there is nothing better that a woman can be.

Metta.