has a photograph of her mom from the late sixties
or early seventies
resting on the makeshift altar
in her closet. The photograph is black and white and pictures a short haired young woman in a flannel shirt staring at the camera through dark and tremendous spanish eyes
. Her face is round, her lips are dipped slightly, as if she’s unconsciously waiting for another cigarette
Every time I see this photograph, I feel my chest drain, my thoughts dissipate and then focus on those eyes, and I find myself saying a little prayer. The prayer is not for help from this woman, but more a request to help, to give in whatever capacity would be right.
There’s something about Gene’s mother that makes me want to serve her.
In August of 2000, a few days after I arrived here, Gene and I wound up in her room after latihan, laying around on her floor, her couch, doing those lazy, nearly intimate things you see occurring in groups of teenagers while they hang out at the park or wait for their airplane to board. That is, nothing directly sexual, but gratuitously physical. Our embrace was accompanied by flits of conversation, no direction, some teasing, a little laugher, some pillowspeak. We were relaxing, and the night was warm, and the lighting was just perfect for a level, uncomplicated seriousness, the sort of seriousness that nurtures an opening of hearts, that creates a widow for the those big details in ones life to be shared.
I forget what started it, maybe I kissed her, maybe I stared a little too long into her tremendous brown eyes, but when they began to glaze over, I knew I was supposed to be quiet. As she began speaking, she was both a light year away and in my arms, but the distance was not emotional. She was reliving something; I was to be her witness.
“I’m coming around the corner,” she said, “and I’m looking in the kitchen, at the floor, where she is. I’m looking at her. Don’t die. Don’t stop breathing. You can’t be dead. Don’t go…”
Staring at her face, as she found herself in her silence, in her childhood trauma, I quickly realized who she was talking about, and I did not let my heart make a sound. I gently didn’t move, doing my best to simply be there, watching her face as it knotted up, as a familiar tear stroked down her cheek.
When Genevieve was eleven years old, her mother died of an aneurysm. It was instantaneous, unexpected. She was making dinner one evening, and fell over. She was gone before she hit the floor.
She left behind a house full of kids, of which Genevieve was the youngest.
Gene and I didn’t talk much between October of last year and just a couple weeks ago, when we started hanging out again. After a Thursday night kedjiwaan, I offered to take her out to a movie, and we ended up spending the night together, chatting and relearning how the other operates. Sometimes it feels as though relationships are bookmarks— or rather, coffee stains on a particular page— and when you go back to them, you see where you left off, and you know right away how far you’ve come since then, since that moment in the coffee shop when something in the window caught your attention just as the barista bumped into your table and knocked over your half-full cup, staining that page for good.
Hanging out with Gene was exactly like that— instantly, I knew how much I have changed since last fall. I felt how much I have relaxed, how lighthearted Portland has allowed me to become; how I'm that much more mature, that much more playful and childish. How less of a mess I am.
But the most significant change I felt in me was how much I didn’t need her to be this or that, how easy it was to listen to what was going on in her life, with her boys and her projects, without feeling that absurd little pain in my heart every time she proved to be her own.
Last night, she told me that the only way we could be together was if I became a feminist. I asked her what she meant by that, what a feminist was supposed to be. She said a feminist seeks to understand women for what they are and what they make of themselves, rather than what they are expected to be. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to be a feminist— I’m too weak, too in love with them not to expect them to be beautiful, and disturbing, and powerful, and even a bit wicked— but that’s why I love Gene. When I asked her, the day we met, what she thought of the word ‘Cunt’, she told me it was the essence of the Female Will. I swooned when she told me that, and shivered. The White Goddess has a terrible, terrible sense of humor.
After we watched the movie, and wandered around Powell’s for a bit, we went back to her place and chatted with her roommates. When she took me up to her room, the first thing my eyes latched onto was that black and white photograph of her mother. The smooth skin, short chin, daylight falling across her neck. The dead woman is sitting at a kitchen table— the kind with the gold flecks in the finish— her hand resting on a pack of Marlboro Reds. Behind her is a wall that needs to be sanded down and repainted. An open window, dishes on the table gather around her. I said a silent prayer, offering whatever she would need of me.
Something else came up last night, in our conversation. We’ve been doing Ramadan, not together, but at the same time, if you understand me, and she has been gracious enough to cook for me the last few nights. I go over to her house, toting groceries and my weakly linked spirit-body envelope, and we chat over a few figs, as the meal is prepared.
As she was throwing the wontons into the bubbling olive oil, she said that she didn’t want to feel like she owed me anything, and I said that all she owes me is a few stories, stories of her life, of her. That seems like ample payment, just for spending time with someone, and getting the chance to show them care and affection, doesn’t it?
So later on she told me the story of her oldest brother.
After her mom died, Gene and her sisters were going through her papers, and came across a bunch of adoption documents. One of the girls tried to follow up on it, but with no luck. Then, years and years later, Miriam (the oldest) was contacted by her long-lost brother. He’s living in Albuquerque, has a kid and is homeless and needs a ride to the check-cashing place.
“But what’s weird about the story, what the weirdest part is,” said Genevieve as she blinked through those almost crazy glasses of hers, “Is that a month after Mom had her aneurysm, he had one too, and went into a coma until his friend put a hot pepper in his mouth and he woke up.
We met up for not-lunch today. Not-lunch is what people do together when they are fasting. They meet up in a restaurant, and order something cheap, and then not touch it. It’s fun, and is the only social option to a bedroom or a tabernacle in these wet winter months. Over cooling tea, we continued our little chat about everything, and she told me about her aunt, who had divorced and then found a ‘perfect partner’ for herself.
“They’re the kind of couple that's totally right together, they glow around each other. She’s a writer, and he’s a bibliophile."
I wondered about that "perfect couple". I touched her hand, and she let her eyes twitch and her tongue stick out (which is a very endearing gesture from her, believe me), and she asked me about ‘us’. Do you know those ‘us’ conversations? The kind that always come up? The kind that seem like a thinly veiled attempt at getting into each other's skin, without all the physical mess and stickiness? I had to deny her my comments. I don’t want to define anymore. I don’t, even if I do it anyhow, in my head, in the corners of my heart. I’m no Zen disciple or anything, but just being sounds like the best course of action; the course that neither denies nor gets tied up in these thousand complexities that two humans love to create for eachother.
And anyhow, what’s the use of a definition, of summarization, when you’d rather it go on indefinitely? As long as we don’t slip away from where and who we need to be, I’d just as soon let this river flow its own way, without trying to damn it up with all my so-called certainties.