When Meg Was Seven

Portrait of Woman in Fur Coat by Jose Chavarry, flickr
Portrait of Woman in Fur Coat by Jose Chavarry, flickr

 

What was it about her first grade teacher Ms. Hardin that drew the seven year old Meg to the woman’s open coffin? Her mother had explained to her while they sat in the pew of the strange church: “Now you don’t have to go up there. That’s not really Ms. Hardin.” How could it not really be Ms. Hardin? If it weren’t really Ms. Hardin, how come so many people were interested in seeing her? It looked like Ms. Hardin, it felt like she was going to rise up and begin to shout at her for coloring crisscross on the tree trunks and round bubbles on the leaves.

The year after Meg had her as a teacher, the year Meg was seven and in the second grade, she brought Ms. Hardin some cookies she and her mother made. Why had she done that? She was clearly the meanest woman Meg had ever met. But she lived in Meg’s neighborhood. Maybe Meg felt sorry for her. Maybe Meg was worried she didn’t have many friends. Already in Meg’s young life she had been adopted when she was two and moved when she was six so she knew what it was like to be uncertain and sometimes not to have friends and to act mean when you’re worried about something.

Ms. Hardin has had a stroke, her mother said. What does that mean? thought Meg. All Meg could think of at the time was the stroke of the yardstick across their palms as she asked them to subtract how many inches she had broken off. It’s something that happens in your  brain, said her mother, it’s very sudden. Was this stroke like lightning? Was it like Ms. Hardin’s temper, unpredictable, ruthless?  Did she feel any pain? Meg felt herself want to cry.

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How to Love an Octopus

Glowing Octopus by ccarlstead, flickr
Glowing Octopus by ccarlstead, flickr

 

Book passage to the South Pacific  where Jacques Cousteau made his mark. When you charter your boat to find your octopus you will discover, in fact, that they use the same tanks, much of the same equipment, designed by the inventor of the Aqua-Lung. His name and methods are sacrosanct. He has shown you this way to love. Watch and listen. Ask questions. Pay attention. Be aware. This is the mark of the lover.

While you wait for passage discover what it’s like to be an octopus by learning to breathe underwater. Enroll in a scuba class.  Begin to learn now that to learn to understand an octopus you will have to learn a way that is the opposite way of being terrestrial. Your feet are crazy long, you have no peripheral vision, and your breathing makes you sound like a monster. To enter a portal requires transformation and patience. You also learn of possible injury from the process of the dive and even death, and yet, you do it for love.

Sit on the edge of the chartered Opunohu boat in the blue crystalline waters off the coast of Moorea. Hold your mask as you flip backwards off the edge into rolling waves. At last, you have entered your own sweet blue planet, the tropical reefs of French Polynesia, in search of your love, the Giant Pacific Octopus. At last you will have an encounter with an alternate reality, another form of consciousness.  At last you will reach across the vertebrate divide to know and be known.

Like all who are pursued and truly desired, your octopus will be illusive. Know that and be patient. She is the master of disguise and changing skin. She is invisible though right before you. She is silent, immobile, watching you as you move over the reef looking for her. You may find evidence of her dinner of scallops and if you are so lucky, an arm full of suckers protruding from her den. If you are polite, and move away, she may come out to greet you the next time you visit. Your acceptance of her need for privacy strengthens her to be brave. If you are slow in your motions and patient on your subsequent visits, she may even take your arm and show you around. She may even introduce you to her friends.

A lover bears gifts. Do not visit bereft of certain tokens of affection. Toys are gifts for an octopus, for the intelligent creature loves a challenge. Do not bore your octopus! Several examples of good toys are as follows: screwtop jars, bottles, plastic screw apart Easter eggs or balls, various video cameras she will enjoy dismantling and dragging into her den. Do not arrive without a crab in a jar or a piece of shrimp in a Mister Potato Head or a lobster in a trap. Watch her with admiration as she springs her food from the trap and devours it, tasting it as it passes from sucker to sucker and into her mouth in the center of her warped star figure.

When you have formed a bond of trust with the object of your love, submit yourself to her curiosity.  Do not shudder as those naturalists and artists of the past. Surely this is not in the lover’s nature, to be repulsed. Instead consider the light suctioning kisses a sweet tasting of your skin, her silken tendril arms moving over your arms and shoulders the gentle exploration of new love, the rapid changes in skin color pleasurable blushes, the pulse of ink and exit a flirtation, the regard of the dark slit eyes the all knowing all loving gaze of the divine.

You could keep a lover if you wish. Some do. In a large fish tank emulating the ocean. She will want to be by the television. And if she can, she will get out and eat the leftovers on the counter and sink. She will crawl onto your shoulder and head and watch tv.  She will cheer on your team. She will watch your favorite shows. If you feed her, if you entertain her, if you love her, she will never leave.

 

This story, “instruction manual” flash fiction piece is based on my grateful admiration of the work of Sy Montgomery, and in particular, The Soul of an Octopus. Some of the details of the dive and experience with octopuses are based on her findings and narration. Also, the documentary Aliens of the Deep was a helpful source. And some of this has no basis in any observation of “fact” whatsoever.

 

 

Dia de los Inocentes

david-b-sorensen-day-of-the-dead-mission-san-fran-2013
David B. Sorensen, Day of the Dead, Mission, San Francisco, 2013

 

The child boarded our flight, his face an adorned sugar skull for Day of the Dead, his clothes the traditional Dapper Death,  El Catrín . The first leg of our trip to Los Angeles my baby Danny had been inconsolable.  I felt the passengers’ discontent and impatience which seemed only to add to the cycle of our misery. I was not looking forward to the flight from Denver and in fact Danny was pushing against me, arching his back as the passengers filed through, grunting and flailing with his arms when a young boy sat beside us bedecked in a top hat, tuxedo, and skeleton gloves, his face painted in the sugar skull style. It gave Danny pause. He stuck his index finger in his mouth and chewed and stared. I was a bit taken back as well since, apart from Halloween costumes, I didn’t normally see children dressed like this. Had I still been married, I mused, this would be exactly the kind of thing I would have looked forward to telling my husband. As it was, I was alone.

The boy held his hands out for my child, indicating he could hold him. I was from a big family. Siblings often comforted each other as much as parents comforted children and so I let my child sit on the lap of Día de Muertos itself. It had become a thing, fashionable even, among my friends to make alters on All Souls’ Day, to festoon their homes with flowers, decorative, candles, painted skulls. But none of us were of Mexican American descent. We did not carry out the full observance, with visitations to gravesites.  Still, because of this familiarity with the holiday, I was not uncomfortable.

Danny and the boy took each other in, Danny standing upon puffy feet, his toes gripping El Catrín’s tuxedo pants. The boy was strong , holding my baby steady as he stood. The boy must have been about ten or eleven, that age where their enthusiasm to help and interact lacks any tinge of self consciousness and they were young enough too to have fresh empathy with public tears, tantrums, distress.

“What is your name?” I said.

The child did not answer me. Maybe he was too enthralled with Danny or maybe he was raised in such a way that responding to adults was an optional activity.

“Do you live in Los Angeles?” I tried again, but no response.

Danny was happy though. He seated himself on the boy’s lap and the child gave him a tiny carved boat my son promptly began to gnaw. I closed my eyes. Since 3 a.m. the night before Danny and I were up pacing. I hear my son talking to the silent sugar skull, his quiet babbling that perhaps had meaning to them both. I felt myself relax, at last, for the first time, in hours.

I must have fallen asleep because when I woke up Danny was on my lap and the boy was asleep beside me, his head drooping on my arm, his white skull make up likely smearing the arm of my blouse, his top hat drooping over his face. Danny was gripping the boat still and drooling over it while he laid his head upon my chest.

At the airport, I anticipated my sister asking me about the white paint on my sleeve, my sister who had never married but wanted a family. For years, we had talked long into many nights about this over the phone. When my marriage fell apart, there was a rift. We spoke less. The only thing I could figure was that she had little sympathy for what I had done, what I had seemed to so easily accept.

At the airport I watched the boy join his family while my sister scooped up Danny. The boy had let Danny have the boat. I hoped it wasn’t an ofrenda for a deceased child for the occasion of Dia de los Angelitos,  The Day of the Little Angels, the day the souls of children who had died come back to visit their families. The boy and his family would need such offerings.

I stopped a flight attendant I recognized from the plane. “Excuse me. Who was the child with the painted sugar skull face? The one dressed as El Catrín? He sat beside my son and I and was so helpful I wanted to thank his family.”

The flight attendant checked in at the desk. “I’m sorry, Miss, we had no children scheduled to fly alone.”

I watched the children’s family heading down the concourse, a happy mass, smiling and laughing and hugging each other, holding hands. I could not see the child but I felt certain he must be among them.

 

 

 

soulmates

He was at it again, thought Sylvie, her husband talking of Her, the alien, the dream alien, and this of all times, with dinner guests to witness it, this being Thanksgiving no less, the table set the day before, the house cleaned last Sunday, the afternoon light bending in perfect golden shafts over their cleared place settings, the room smelling of warmth, mellowed perfumes, buttered dishes, wine, coffee. A pale pink rose petal had fallen from a low bunch of flowers gathered in a centerpiece and was tinged a slight brown against the cream fabric. Almost nothing was amiss.

Their guests were young, coiffed, and beautiful, supremely educated, their clutches firmly settling into the world. When they were at Abbie and Jake’s house this past summer, Sylvie had overheard her young handsome husband Brad speak of an alien having visited him in a dream to extract his semen. It was such a brief conversation sliver that folded back into the larger noise of the party that it did not hit her, the cut of it, until she turned the lock to Abbie’s tiny half bath, and then she felt her head turn heavy and she sat upon the commode, gripping the sink. Had he really said that?  She asked him about it on their way home. He just shook his head, his eyes glazed over, but for Brad that could mean he just didn’t want to talk about it.

And now here it was again.

“She was there, beside me, last night. Sylvie was asleep and I tried to wake her.”

“Oh yeah, I’m sure man, I’m sure you tried to wake your wife to tell her about the sexy alien babe,” said Jake. “You must be a baby daddy by now. They got your semen last summer.”

“What? What is this?” This from Rakesh who taught at the college. He and his fiancé were holding hands under the table but let go at this unexpected turn. They were newly arrived from India.

“We grow ’em rare over here,” said Jake.

“There are gods, there are other beings,” said Rakesh, trying to be helpful. “Perhaps this is what is happening to you.”

“I don’t know,” said Brad. “I’m just saying, this woman was with me last night, an alien. This was the same one from before.”

“Why I never heard – ” said Abbie. “Sylvie, is everything all right?”

The room was starting to shift a bit, Sylvie could feel it, they leaned in, their elbows pressed hard against her table, the floor length curtains sentries, the chandelier oppressive.

Sylvie tilted a dinner knife, unused and abandoned, so that it reflected Brad’s image. His head appeared football shaped, his neck bulbous.

“This feeling I have, it is like a unification,” he went on. “It is beautiful. I feel whole. I have a second life in that place. It is my real life, my actual life, my soul.”

“For fuck’s sake, man,” said Jake. He had known Brad since they were children. They ran an accounting firm together.

Sylvie retreated to the kitchen. Abbie followed. She held Sylvie for a while. She then poured her friend a glass of water. She asked Sylvie some questions, none of which Sylvie could answer. The dinner guests trickled away and Sylvie managed not to cry, not even for Abbie. Sylvie prevented Jake from calling the hospital. Abbie and Jake finally went home.

Sylvie sat up in bed that night while Brad drifted off. The shifting shadows from the trees outside created dark spaces and light. “Be gone,” she said, touching Brad’s forehead while she spoke, for she loved him no matter the alterations of his attractions, adventures, grotesqueries. “Be gone,” she said. “Mine.” And there was not a sound but the shifting leaves.