In the Armpits of the Night

Excerpt from current NaNoWriMo

You didn’t tell him your name, you realize as you walk back into your house, if you can call it that. A shack resting on bricks is a description more suited. It’s a moving house, the kind that can be carried on trucks to places far away and made out to be charming and quaint. The kind of house children lean out of windows to watch as they go by because they don’t know that whole structures can move on trucks big enough to hold them.
You only told him your position. Your role. Your so-called calling. That you’re a priest. You don’t know why. Maybe it was the color of him, the starch darkness of it, the way he lay on the ground and thought you were a threat. It reminded you of your friends back in the eighties, when things were bad, how some of them dropped away from you. Years before you joined the Catholic faith, of course. Back when everything and everyone you knew was first disgusted and a few years later, scared.
You woke up tonight not because of the boy in your graveyard–your realize how proprietary you’ve become of the stones, old and new, burnished and faded to nothing. The grass, which it is not your job to tend, is long and messy because the person whose job it is to tend to it has not come around for two weeks. Sick mother, he said over the phone, in a heavy accent and a voice so strung out that you know he’s lying. You’ll have to do something soon. Reach out? Visit? Just call a bureaucrat and ask for someone new? Make the phone call yourself to fire him, the poor Dominican man who still lives with his mother and father and grandmother even though he’s thirty, because he can’t hold down a job?
You should have more sympathy, more compassion. But you don’t. Your life for the past twenty-five years has been not so much a lie as a fabrication stitched together from truths and half-truths, snippets of belief sewn alongside a safe escape, and tonight was a stark reminder of what you’ve been missing, what you miss. You could see it in his eyes, the youth’s, the boy who missed his friend a little too much, a little too hard, a little too lovingly. You recognized it in him because you’ve seen it in the mirror for years. Which is why you don’t have one in your house, why you smashed the one you had as an heirloom from your mother, your hateful mother who gave you a dying gift of a gilded mirror with a Post-It note on the back reading “Behave.” As if you hadn’t been. As if you hadn’t already reformed your ways and become the man you are today.
The teakettle is whistling away when you get inside and you rush to turn the gas off. You forgot you’d put it on and left it on. You could have burned out the bottom of the kettle, which is darker now than it used to be but still usable. You could have started a fire. You could have let the flames take your possessions, your house, your calling. The pictures. You collapse in a chair. Not the pictures. Never the pictures. You’ve tried to burn those before. It hasn’t worked. Though if it were out of your hands… In God’s…
But God didn’t burn down your house. And He hasn’t struck you down yet, despite your sins. He is forgiving, like they told you He would be. And He is merciful, which is not the same. You get up and pour your tea, saying your prayers silently, thanking the God and the man who became God and was God all along for your salvation, for the life you’ve come to live. For your safety and security.
A knock on the door makes you spill hot liquid on your hand and you curse, your usual goddamnit, which somehow you haven’t managed to train yourself out of. And the knock comes again as you’re running the cold tap on your hand and apologizing for the curse, for blaspheming. You think it must be the boy, the boy in love with a boy who’s dead, the boy whose eyes you could have drowned in and whose voice, traced with the slightest English accent, you wanted to feel vibrating through his throat. Your insides jump. You have kept yourself away from temptation for so many years. If it falls into your lap, what will you do? Whatcha gonna do when they come for you? You haven’t listened to music in a long time, not music that is solely for pleasure, but you remember lyrics from before.
“Who is it?” you ask, because there is no peephole in the not-heavy door that could be broken by the slightest fisted or shouldered pressure.
“It’s me!”
You start breathing again and allow your shoulders to slump. It’s not the boy. Of course not. Even if he did dream the way you think he does, why would he come to you and yours about it? “Come on in,” you say and open the door.
“Finally.” She barrels in like a hurricane. Named for one, too, the one that started on the day she was born, on a rooftop above floating cars and carcasses. It was bad luck, you always think. But there’s no such thing as bad luck, you always remind yourself. Still.
“Hello, Kat.” She’s already sitting on a chair, her hands wrapped around your mug of tea. You turn to make another one, not wanting her to see the annoyance on your face. She’s quick to pick up on these things.
“Hello! It’s late,” she says. “Why are you still up?”
“Why did you come visit me if you thought I wouldn’t be up?”
“I wanted to wake you up! You’re always funner when you’re sleepy. And funnier.”
“More fun.”
“Funner.”
“More fun.”
“I checked. Online. Funner is okay now too.”
“Never mind.” It’s a losing battle and you know it. You don’t have internet in your own house , though ironically the church has free wi-fi that just doesn’t reach as far as your house, so you have to carry your laptop there and sit in a hard pew if you want to write emails or read articles.
“So what’re you doing?”
“I was having tea until you took it.” You’re over your annoyance now so you bop her on the nose with the new teabag before putting it in another mug of hot water to steep.
“Sorry.” She doesn’t sound apologetic.
“What are you doing?” you ask.
“Drinking your tea,” she says, grinning, which twists her upper lip to one side. She had a cleft pallet surgery when she was young; she’s never told you this, but the scarring on her lip, clearly not taken care of well after some reparative surgery or it would have gone away, has marked her. You looked up pictures to figure out what she could be scarred from and then wished you hadn’t. Children with mouths gaping open, some with their entire cheeks torn asunder-it made you wonder why they’d been marked that way. What they’d do later in life. What God’s plan was.
“Yes. You are. But why are you here?” You don’t need to add “this time” because you both know that’s what you’re really asking. Katrina shrugs and plays with the string of the teabag, tucking it in and out of itself in the knot you taught her how to make around the handle of the mug.
“He did it again.”
When she’d first started coming over after dark, after she’d met him at church and been to confession a few times, you were apprehensive about what “it” was. You thought “it” was even worse than it was. Not that her “it” isn’t bad enough. But-and it’s terrible that you think this way-it’s better than what your dad did to you when you were her age. You’d have exchanged those its in a heartbeat. Especially as your it, you believe, is what made you what you are and what led to your positive diagnosis, which led first to recklessness and then to self flagellation in the form of a different sort of recklessness, and finally led you here, to Him. But here she is, led to you by her him more than your Him.
You wait her out.
“With a belt this time.”
You want to wretch, though you’ve heard worse over the years, but usually with the pretense of a wall between you and the other. This girl, so vulnerable but trusting… What if you were someone like him, this so-called father of hers, rather than a Father whose vows and beliefs run entirely contrary to his? What if you were one of the priests whose behavior is so repugnant that finally they are being expelled, slowly but surely, or at least attacked in the court of public opinion? But Katrina, she knows you’re trustworthy. She sees you as you are and she knows that you’ll take her into your home and sit with her alone and that you will do nothing, not touch her, not hit her, not yell at her. You will listen to her and you won’t make the faces she’s seen on others. You will keep your face calm for her, to make it easier.
“With a belt, huh?”
“Yeah.”
“Was he really angry?”
“He was really drunk.”
“Ah, yes. Well. What was his reasoning?”
She shrugs again. Takes a sip of tea and then says “Fuck!” You give her a look. She mumbles an apology she doesn’t mean. “No. He was drunk.” As if that is explanation enough. “He smelled bad when he got home so I told him so and then he-” She mimes the lashes.
“That’s no reason. That’s an excuse.”
“I was mean.”
“No, honey. You were honest.”

On this Mountain

Mountain

“There is nothing a mountain can do to hurt you,” Brian said. We were in the car, heading towards one of his favorite hiking spots, and he could see my chest rise and fall as my breathing quickened and the way my cheeks got hot and my fists clenched. Anxiety, that’s what my doctor said.

Screw my doctor.

“I beg to differ,” I told Brian, except that I didn’t, because what was the point? He was taking me on this trip with an explicit and very obvious reason. A proposal. This wasn’t exposure therapy. This was a romantic gesture.

Screw romantic gestures.

Brian and I had history. Two years of it. And six weeks of dating before that, if it counts. “Meeting through an online dating website does not a forever make,” my mother told me when, in my honeymoon phase glee, called to tell her that I finally had a boyfriend.

Screw my mom too. Except she was right. At least in my case. Still, screw her. Screw her for being right. Screw her for planting that seed of doubt that’s now grown into a weeping willow that I can hide inside and feel safe in.

And then this mountain business.

Brian pulled our backpacks out of the back seats of his SUV, which he called his truck even though it wasn’t, and gave me one. It was lighter than his, almost for sure, but it was heavy enough to reset the disaster reel in my mind. Falling down backwards down the trail, falling sideways off the train and into a chasm, slipping and breaking a leg or an arm or a rib or my head, being attacked by a wild boar or a black bear or a snake or—

“Ready?”

“Yup.”

I followed him towards the base of the trail. I watched his boots thunk down and tried to match his pace. I had always been a devout shoe-watcher. My mom always told me to put my chin up, to be proud, to let others stare at my skin if they had to but to know that I was beautiful. I didn’t know how to explain her that looking down had nothing to do with any of that. Nobody knew where to place me, so everyone put me in a comfortable box and didn’t see me as a thug, because I wasn’t big or a man or dark enough to be a thug. I knew thugs, real ones and ones who just looked it, and they didn’t think I belonged to them either. Mom thought I belonged everywhere. That I was some free-spirited sprite like her, able to jump through environments and homes and societies like an acrobat. Instead, I put my head down and found things that were interesting and similar everywhere. It was easier to move around when I knew that no matter where we went, I’d have shoes to look at. Almost everyone wore shoes. The ones who didn’t, I knew, were even more on the outside than I was.

Brian’s shoes were sturdy yellow Timberlands. I’ll say this for him – they were broken in, not shiny and new. He really was a hiker. He said he was many other things that he wasn’t (tender, intelligent, original) but this one thing was true. He loved the mountains. I used to love that about him.

On the trail, Brian made me go in front of him and kept up a running commentary, so I could never forget where we were.

“Careful of that rock, babe. There’s a tree branch coming up on your left. We’re going to curve here, so don’t look down to the left, okay? It’s not that far but I know it freaks you out so just don’t look. There you go. Good girl.”

Idiot. I wasn’t afraid of heights. I lived in cities all my life. I was afraid of nature. Of this mountain we were on. Of what would happen at its summit.

It was beautiful, I was big enough to admit that, even with my sulky silence. The air smelled different, tasted like cold water when I breathed it in. The trail itself was nothing special, but the views of other mountains was more impressive than the view I was used to: a bunch of identical high rises in what was called, in every city I’d been to, the ghetto.

I was still scared of the mountains. Man made disasters I could understand. I grew up seeing people get into fights that left them bloody. I knew gunshots when I heard them. Sirens were a constant, and the sound of pounding meat as cops beat up on other people was more familiar than any tree. I had no idea what trees were around us. I didn’t know more than a handful of names for tree: birches, furs, weeping willows, regular willows. Apple trees. I knew there were more, but it’s not necessary knowledge for a city-dweller.

An hour in, when Brian told me we were halfway there, I stopped. He bumped into me. We fell. I screamed, even though we were nowhere near an edge. We were firmly in between large rocky bits, on a trail that made a little valley between them. There was dirt in my mouth and Brian was cursing, and he got up and tried to help me, but I only turned over off my stomach and sat there, spitting out dirt and taking swigs from my water bottle and spitting them out too.

“You’re wasting our water,” Brian said.

“I thought you said we had enough for four treks like this,” I told him with a thick tongue, still trying to expel the feeling of dirt from my mouth.

“That still doesn’t mean you should be wasting any. What if something happened?”

“You said nothing could happen.”

He shut up, knowing it was better not to argue with me when I was like this. I would win. My logic was as curving and twisted as a Möbius strip. Those I knew about. I was one of the ones who paid attention at school. Every school I went to, the math or science teacher (sometimes both) did the Möbius strip trick for us, trying to show us how cool it was, how it defied logic or didn’t or something. Once it was an art teacher who showed us how to make one.

Brian wouldn’t sit. He stayed standing, bouncing on his toes. Everything was going wrong, as far as he was concerned. I wasn’t having fun. It was getting colder than he’d meant it to get. And we weren’t moving, which meant he wouldn’t be able to time his proposal with the pre-sunset colors.

“I want to go back down,” I said. He kicked a pebble around with his foot.

“After all this way?”

“We’re only halfway. You said.”

He didn’t say anything. A gust of wind blew through our clothes and hair. It smelled delicious. I wanted to grab it in handfuls and put it in my pocket and breathe it in every time I had to pass the garbage room and the hallway of my apartment building which smelled like piss.

“I’m going to say no, Brian,” I finally said.

“I know.”

“Then why did–”

“I thought the mountain might change your mind.”

I snorted. “And you say you’re barely Indian.”

He was a half blood like me. No one knew where to place him either. It had been part of what drew us together originally. There was a lot of ground to cover when it came to identity. We had an endless supply of conversational material. Not a day passed when we wouldn’t call or text each other with the latest slur, awkward question, or odd look directed at us.

“Yeah, well.” He was quiet, a shoe-watcher, looking down at his Timberlands and moving them around, back and forth, a tiny dance of discomfort.

“I still love you,” I said.

“You do?”

“I just don’t know how much yet. I don’t know if it’s a forever love.”

“I do,” he said.

“I know you do.”

“Okay, come on, get up,” he said, helping me to my feet.

We began walking down, him in front this time. Either he didn’t want to look at me or he trusted me to walk well enough on my own now. Maybe both. I followed him, keeping an eye on where he placed his feet, and tried to put mine in the same spots he did. His stride was wider than mine. I had to stretch to match it sometimes. I was a game. I was having more fun now. I pointed out birds I’d never seen before, and the shapes I saw in the shadows of trees. Brian answered when I spoke, and I could hear a smile in his voice. Maybe even relief. Maybe I just wanted that part.

We unloaded our backpacks into the backseat of the truck that wasn’t and got into the front. I reached over to kiss him, and he kissed me back. I could feel the lump of a box in the pocket of his flannel shirt when he leaned against me. I put my hand on it.

“Keep it,” I whispered in his ear. “Let’s wait and see.”

He drew away and started the car. “Maybe next time,” he said as he drove us out of the parking lot, which felt more familiar to me than the mountain dust clinging to my clothes and hair. “Maybe we’ll make it to the top, next time.”

 

 

 

The story above got an honorable mention from the judge at Hour of Writes, who was reading the pieces blindly. 

Image / flickr: Doug Wheller

A Well-Rounded Roundup

I’ve been neglectful, rather, of this lovely lovely blog, but there are good reasons. There always are, aren’t there, when people neglect things. Excuses, excuses and all that. Well, here’s what I’ve been up to:

  1. Moving to New York City.
  2. Trying to find a job.
  3. Failing, miserably.
  4. Getting into freelance work.
  5. Don’t ask me what freelance work is, because it’s a ridiculous mishmash of things, most of which involve hustling my butt off to try to find more work.
  6. Got me a boyf.
  7. Got me some cats.
  8. Reconnected with old friends in the city (because that’s what we call NYC here, “the city,” rather like San Franciscans call it “the city” too).
  9. Got rejected from a bunch of literary places.
  10. Got accepted to some cool places like McSweeney’s.
  11. Did NaNoWriMo…
  12. …and finished the novel I started over a year and a half ago in Oxford.

What does this mean? That hopefully now that I’m not quite noveling, I’ll be back here more often and updating.