My sister, B and I were curious kids. She was three years older and was born with a relentless desire to educate. I was her poor student of five, clad in the blurred schematics of fate. She would write math problems on index cards and hold them up for me, shuffling to find the easiest. She taught me to read and made me study garage sale picture encyclopedias. A side room in our basement was the classroom, complete with chalkboard, desk and supplies. I learned what she knew. Years later, we’d discover that we knew some things we never wanted to learn.
Dad was a bibliophile and mom a pack rat. The water stained cardboard boxes in the adjacent room of our classroom held secrets. Packed away photos, old love letters, trinkets of a youth we were living. Our recess was to dig for interesting stuff. One evening we discovered an old biology set and dragged the clasped metal box up the stairs before dinner time.
My father stuttered as a kid and when he became flustered or angry, it would come out. It was never severe, but you could tell by his lack of words and quivering lip that it was there if you knew him. When he saw the kit, his eyes faded into his own childhood and the ache of loneliness he passed into us. We asked if we could open it and he said we could. After dinner.
We ate our egg noodles and pork chops and green peas with an anxious buzz. When the table was clear and the crumbs wiped clean, he hefted the oblong metal box onto the table. It opened with a creak. Our saucer eyes blossomed when we saw the complete set, pristine, untouched. A frog and fish in bags of formaldehyde were clipped neatly next to the microscope. Glass slides and tape, scalpels, iodine, a metal tray… the fish and frog, all perfect in their designated space. We caught a glimpse of the molting specimens through the plastic bags before my father promptly threw them in the trash.
That night we played with the microscope, squinting at grains of salt. As bedtime neared, and the yellow light began to hover, I snuck into the kitchen and stuck my head into the trashcan. I looked closely at the frog and fish and feared the smell that leaked from the brittle bags. I heard a floorboard squeak and I spun around with a jump, it was my B. I could see her magnified eyes blink behind her thick glasses, and the blue in them jumped into me. We knew then that the history of our being was an elaborate web spun deep in our souls. We were both afraid for the relief.
We tested and manipulated our ESP and were enamored by the results. We were proud and displayed our skills to our parents. They rolled eyes and smiled as we amused them with their suspicions. My father produced a Ouiji board for us and told us stories about blindfolded antics with it in college. My mother told us about a day in the scratched dirt of Western Illinois when a different board predicted her marriage to my father. We contacted many ghosts that summer, some were awful spirits but most were just gentle with us. When we contacted a ghost pretending to be Elvis, we laughed. My father watched us with caution. B had started to develop “tendencies”, the school gym teacher, Mrs. Tesmer, who my sister abhorred, broke out in a rash.
”That’s what she gets for making me play dodge ball”. B said over the top of a book, pushing her heavy glasses up the brim of her nose.
My father became concerned when neighborhood bullies started to systematically rotate through the local emergency room. His concern tucked the board back into the broken box it came in and it sighed in her bedroom closet. He had a long talk with my sister I wasn’t privy to and she refused to ever touch it again.
For a long while I felt as if I was a bane to my father, that he tried to display all the love he could effort me only because he should. I think we were keeping the same secret from one another. He didn’t know what genes I had inherited, and I didn’t know that he knew exactly as I felt.
Adolescence is awkward. Everybody knows that. Our changing bodies, our indestructible glass souls, the ability to do anything with the pass of youth, these are the strength of miracles. In the years that follow, a slow digression into the other aspect of our life, the mind, overwhelm the body and we start the march through our destiny toward death. We seek truth and knowledge through experience and the guidance of our elders. When the variables twist and turn; following knots, places we are afraid to go, chances we didn’t take, they accumulate as question marks in our psyche as we grow weary and complacent. We have become adults. I never thought the path would be so short. I never knew it would have so many intersections.
For the majority of my youth I tried desperately to be “normal”. I wanted to feel accepted even though I already was. In my body, I always felt someone else. I felt spirits whispering to me, telling me to pay attention to the little things, letting me know deep in my gut that things somewhere, somehow were terribly wrong. I started to notice the undersides of elm leaves. At night I would lie awake with terrible headaches, tossing and turning and crying myself to sleep. I felt like a train was coming and I still needed a ticket.
When I was eight, I received a fake Rolex watch in the mail. It was addressed to Master Robert Clifford Br. I wore it everywhere. The next month came a cordless phone and the next, a television set. They were all from Germany with nice handwritten notes in German. The envelopes were faded pale green and were sealed with a red wax crest of a Griffin. After the third gift, they stopped.
Then we were normal and forgot to go live our lives, until a few Thanksgivings ago. My father had passed the year before and this was the first without him. The grief was heavy in us all, because we never talked about him or how we felt. It wasn’t our way. We preferred to wallow in the loss to make sure it sunk in deep enough so we would never forget. For the first time we were saturated in our own pain and sorrow instead of the sorrow of the world and our helplessness in solving it. B’s first baby, Alex was a year and a half old and still barely walking. He would crawl to the door and cry, we would pick him up and bounce him and put him down so he could crawl to the door again. We were amused and tired and perplexed until I felt a chill run up my spine. I looked at B and she knew. Her blue eyes pierced through me and we knew. That was the beginning for me.
When we would ask my father about his life, he only told the funny stories. He was a charismatic fool that learned somewhere along the line that to deal with his sorrow he had to pretend to be happy. He always pretended to be happy. I suppose the coping mechanism was better than most people turn to, but I never saw him when he was alone.
My surname has a sordid past. From the fifteenth to the late eighteenth century, there were some misunderstandings. Let’s just say my kin had an illegal tollbooth, hid money and cursed the greater part of civilization. For the petty, I apologize.
For the rest, I give you all that I have lost.
After my father died, I began digging in the card board boxes. I found his military records, old love poems not written to my mother, numerous copies of The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran, I would open every copy inscribed by a different love of his life before he went to war, each page was the same,
You will know the secret of death.
But how shall you know it unless you seek it in the heart of life?
…For what is it to die but to stand naked in the wind and melt into the sun?
Only when you drink from the river of silence shall you indeed sing
And when you have reached the mountaintop, then you shall begin to climb.
I found a semblance of my father, dusty in memories. I wanted more. I paced under the low ceiling of peeled paint and followed my shadow behind the hanging light bulb. I looked at the bottom of our house and all our memories and I cried.
I was jaded at my existence, bitter and apathetic that I had been dragged into this life. Salty and crumpled, my thoughts moved away from it all and I found a deep path to the center of meaning. My heart swelled and I embraced the sorrow and I knew I could use it to find happiness.
When we pried the grips of my father he would say,
”Let sleeping dogs lie.” He was always full of idioms but with this one he looked you in the eye and meant it.
“Like kneading the pizza dough too much?” I’d ask.
He only smiled.
My sister called me yesterday. She didn’t want to tell me she said, but Alex was insisting someone was at the door. He kept asking my sister to let him in. She looked through the little window and saw empty space. Alex insisted. She opened the door.
”See mommy” He said pointing, ”That’s the man with grandma.”
Research indicates that the olfactory is the sense most associated with memory. Try thinking of a wet pile of autumn leaves. See. What the researchers and society can’t put their finger on is one of the sixth senses (there are many). Mine is the ability to change things, I can alter an individual identity. It isn’t like an old gypsy curse, and we aren’t Romanian. My curse is a manifold scattered on a work slate and I deliberately arrange the pieces, performing a form. It is an easy task. I take one thing at a time and it is so before I make it. When I apply the same practices to myself, an odd thing happens, I stutter in tongues unbeknownst to my past. I linger on the edge of an abyss where sorrow wakes up and my will forces down against it.
The spirits shake on the underside of elm leaves and implore me to wait out my anxiety. They say that one step at a time gets me where I’m going and that the last step I stepped in might have been my last. I find the blue in shadows and stretch it out till the seams bust. My essence is of but a spore waiting for rain in the desert. Waiting always was the hardest part.