The Forbiddenness of Growing Up During the Cold War

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"Jenny and I nicked x’s in the palms of our hands and, sitting crosslegged, held our palms together, interlacing our fingers and gazing nobly into each other’s eyes while the x’s bled into each other."
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"Saturday you might see your dad in a t-shirt, your brother might be asked if he’d like to throw a ball around, and from a corner of the lawn you might sit and watch, wild with the wrongness of being a girl, wild with stoppered grace."
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"Later, in the hour after supper when nobody cared where children went, we looked for and found each other (we were not best friends, and didn’t possess best-friend telepathy) and went to Jenny’s backyard again, behind an overgrown lilac."

Men then were more alike than they are now. In their alikeness, which the time required, they had a conscientious, replicable beauty–boy cleanliness, haircuts that showed their ears, white shirts, black ties. Fresh handkerchiefs. Shoes whose shine needed vigilance. In winter, imposing overcoats that made them seem like soldiers in the army of seriousness and made it hard to tell them apart, especially from a distance, so that if a child saw her father far down the winter sidewalk she would have trouble knowing for sure it was her father and she would stand in her oversized rubber boots, using one mitten as a gas mask to diffuse the freezing air, until it was him or it wasn’t. This was long ago, during the war known as Cold. The early-morning unison of the fathers’ departure would have shamed a flight of blackbirds; under the vaults and domes of the Capitol, behind locked doors, at the fathers’ gray steel desks, at the ends of their pencils, the war was going well, it was going badly, it was a matter of interpretation, it was work. The daylight absence of the men, the fathers, imbued the suburb with the suspense of desertion. Every blade of grass in every lawn was waiting. Every wife was waiting, every dog with pricked-up ears and metal tags tinking on its collar was waiting, and each blade of grass, each wife, each dog and child, whatever else they did, held still. Whatever else it was for, the suburb was for holding still. Look: black circles have been cut from the lawns and into these circles have been inserted slim upward-striving trees. Against the possibility of their flying away to unite with other trees they are tethered to the earth with wires.

The explaining voice pauses; the pause is not a lull, not neutral, but active and soliciting; the voice belongs to the movie you are watching, and watching is what has been asked of you so far, but you learn from the pause that watching no longer suffices and some other engagement is required, but what that might be, you can’t say, there isn’t time. Over the Hiroshima of the black-and-white classroom movie, the bomb floats from the belly whose riveted steel plates have a homemade frankenstein crudity: how strange to see how the plane is made; that clouds float by; how serenely, with what destined aplomb, the bomb peels away into the long arc of descent. In its scrolling slowness it’s left behind in air; it’s smaller and smaller and farther and farther behind; it could almost be forgotten about. Below, between parting clouds, a plain, the city-feeling of a grid, a clutteration of tiny roofs, infinite holding still.

Saturday you might See your dad in a t-shirt, your brother might be asked if he’d like to throw a ball around, and from a corner of the lawn you might sit and watch, wild with the wrongness of being a girl, wild with stoppered grace. Saturdays your dad was his own man, he said. Whose was he when he wasn’t his own? Opposing the soft amused handsomeness of his face his glasses had an architectural authority, the naked lenses dominated by the heavy black plastic bridge and earpieces. His hair memorized its side part. On a high closet shelf lived the hats forsaken when Kennedy took his oath of office bareheaded, trusting in his rashness and eloquence, in how young he was and how that was suddenly what was needed, and how it seemed to mean he could face things without the old inhibition and correctness, with, instead, shameless resourcefulness, undeluded cunning; and how fear relented with the bareheadedness of JFK; how fear was no equal for wind rifling the dark hair of a handsome man.

Deprived of my mother’s attention my father would narrow his eyes lonesomely and try to set something on fire, some dogma or other, till she faced him to argue. His voter registration was discreetly partyless to insure his survival from administration to administration, but he was a Democrat. Wounded by her Republican convictions, offensive not only in themselves but as the emblem of some ultimate elusiveness in his wife, he persisted in the belief that she could be harangued into converting. Ph.D. or not, he came of a long line of forceful soul-savers, river-dunking, hellfire-extolling Baptists. When troubled, he would take nail clippers from his pocket and excruciate tiny parings from his already short nails. He didn’t seem to regard this as a private act, and the fact that he wasn’t aware this habit repelled other people filled me with wretched solicitude, as if nothing stood between him and disaster. When he took his glasses off it was as if he lifted away his sly intelligence and left a face naïve as a sleeper’s. When he crossed his legs the striptease shock of the white calf with its intimate corkscrews of black hair alarmed us all (my mother wondered aloud sometimes why no shank showed when JFK crossed his legs). He was an avid taker of offense. The word hillbilly overheard by chance–in a joke on TV, say–riled him like a just accusation. His gaucheness wasn’t completely lost on him and in the right mood he could mock it with a kidding lightheartedness impossible to reconcile with his prevailing touchiness: my little brother and sister and I longed for these fits of clowning, but they were like weather, immune to coaxing. In the token sartorial task assigned him, his oxfords submitted to the polish-stained shoebrush. The happiness of buffing called for snatches of sinister, lilting Hank Williams. Oh I know a gal lives over the hill. If she won’t do it, her sister will.

On the coffee table: glorious oversized magazines whose pages exacted from a usually slapdash child the delicate touch and visual insatiability of a curator. Whose arrival was an event–at dinner: “The new LIFE came today”–and whose disposal elicited an elegiac tone–“Are we done with that LIFE?” There was TV, of course, but TV watching was closely monitored: these magazines were the source of my knowledge of the world beyond the suburb. These pages had held the sullenly unremarkable book depository, the knoll where a father in swiftest reflex had flattened himself against the grass, taking his crewcut sons with him (there was so little touch in our family that I envied those boys, I wanted an instinctive arm to press me down while sirens careened, or maybe just to feel adrenalized protectiveness radiating from a male body–maybe it was Freudian, the wish to be toppled and yanked close while emergency wheeled through the air), Oswald’s lean fox face, its expression not much different from the shamed, dissembling insolence of certain boys in my class, boys known for cornering and tormenting, whose meanness was revered. There was Audrey Hepburn in a striped sailor shirt; there was the hammy smile of a chimpanzee in an astronaut suit, harnessed into the padded socket of a space capsule; there was an American soldier, rifle on his knees, watching five slight Vietnamese men, hands bound behind their backs, step barefoot into the narrow boat with him. In those pages Jenny Small and I read that when police entered the apartment of a woman murdered by the Boston Strangler a record was still spinning on the turntable. From the hulking cabinet stereos in our living rooms we knew the grainy hiss and snap of the needle riding that last groove, the diamond of needle with its gliding listlessness and its failure to notice it had come to the end, and it came home to us on the rattly aluminum-framed faded turquoise-and-white plastic-webbing chaise lounge in Jenny’s backyard that as girls we were on the way to becoming wanted by rapists. We might feel cunning and self-sufficient and male, but look, none of those things was true. It was as if we had been two boys, till we read that. It was just luck that we read it on Jenny’s mother’s chaise lounge, me on the rickety end where a sunbather’s feet belonged, Jenny sitting close to but not leaning against the cranked-up back support, the magazine spread across her lap, a flexing slippery V of glossy pages with, on each side, an island of brown knee. I seemed to see the left knee with the keenest focus I had ever brought to bear on any object. The horrifying page that rested against it made that knee exquisite in the composed human beauty of bone under skin. What did what we had read do to us? That it was terrible, Jenny and I could discern in each other’s eyes. We were in this together, but what did being in it mean? Later, in the hour after supper when nobody cared where children went, we looked for and found each other (we were not best friends, and didn’t possess best-friend telepathy) and went to Jenny’s backyard again, behind an overgrown lilac where, with the boy scout knife borrowed from her older brother’s drawer and singed for sterilization with matches also found there, Jenny and I nicked x’s in the palms of our hands and, sitting crosslegged, held our palms together, interlacing our fingers and gazing nobly into each other’s eyes while the x’s bled into each other. Only they didn’t. One of us noticed and said wait, there’s not enough and it’s not getting into each other. From the edges of the cuts emerged little rubies, bead after luscious bead, but, true, it wasn’t flowing, so we rubbed and smeared our palms, and that was the only thing that hurt, the edges of the cuts peeling back, the nervy insideness of one hand in electric contact with another, the streaky fingerpainting mess we were making of our palms, meaning bleeding into each other was not glamorous, but messy and determined, amateur and startling. That didn’t matter too much compared to the feeling that this was working–that it was doing what we’d wanted it to, hard though it would have been for either of us to explain.

Set apart: time of mid-morning departure, time of highways’ infinity, time of the gritty-glassy echo-y unscrewing of the lid of the red plaid thermos usually reserved for the beach, time of lemonade a-tilt in the red plastic cup-cap. Time of that cup’s rim, wiped between turns so no one would die from the other’s germs. Time of children’s immersion in the atmosphere of their parents’ marriage. Time of getting lost and whose fault it was. Time of the hotel swimming pool with its confidence-inspiring stench of chlorine. Time of signs warning there was no lifeguard, of the cement margins where the chaise lounges held sunglassed mothers and fathers whose shy nakedness causes the child’s heart to thump in the child’s skinny chest from delight at this exposure, which the child feels as a coming closer, a confounding of realities. Every unhappy family is periodically ransacked by joy. It is the way the family haunts itself, through the unknownness that is always, powerfully, in the parents’ possession, the unknown whose sudden casual revelation on the chaise lounges on the hot cement margins of the hotel swimming pool in a never-before-seen city causes a child’s heart to beat hugely in the first intimation of breaking–of the child comprehending why grownups say of something or other that it is enough to break your heart.

Where was this? The chainlink fence that warned there was no lifeguard, the mothers who called no running, I mean it, no running. The shouted names of other children revealed to us, though our mother, a violent admirer of Jackie Kennedy’s widowed composure, would never raise her voice in public. The not-very-distant freeway doing a steady business in semis, cumulus clouds brighter for the level radiance from the west, our shadows’ legs marvelously long, our sleek wet heads so alike we were tribal, except within that tribe were the sharper alliances of brother and sister, and in our wet swimsuits we were more brother and sister than we had ever been before, eagerly, competitively, near-nakedly brother and sister, and when he followed me up the 15-foot ladder whose rungs I remember for their wet-metal smell and ascending dangerousness, the flattery of his following so close lit my skin like sunburn and drove my climb to the pinnacle whose galvanized aluminum slide slanted to a glancing, slapping, light-scattering heaven ringed with wavering child-bodies that left an open space for the next slider. My brother was right behind, and right behind him came the oppressive almost-sexiness of other children’s wet bodies clambering up the ladder. Maybe he wanted to impress these strange others, maybe too many cartoons whose victims rebounded laughing had led him to believe no real harm would be done (that was to be our parents’ theory)–whatever causes converged in his shove, I was off balance, trying to correct the asymmetry of my pose there at the top, and thus went over the metal-pipe railing, the arm thrown in front of my face hitting first, then my knees, and I was slammed flat, silence closing in, circling as if I was a drain it wanted to go down. It was a very quiet thing to be at the heart of an accident. Through wet eyelashes I saw a world peaceful down to the grains of sand or grit on the cement inches from my nose, each grain precisely cherished by its shadow, the grains brightly lit and far apart and astounding as an array of boulders on the moon, and whose meticulousness placed them with this unearthly distinctness–what did that, and did it know about me? Then: voices, grownup voices, grownup feet, confusion, thrilled interrogation, solicitude. Dark fur against gaudy whiteness: those were my father’s legs, this was my father crouching to ask questions, but the magnitude of my alertness crushed the desire to answer him. Nobody maintained in those days that you shouldn’t move a person who’d fallen, rescue was a more casual prerogative, and I was carried back to our hotel room in my father’s arms; this once, his arms. I was left alone on one of the double beds in the air-conditioned gloom while my mother and father conferred outside the door in the gentling heat of early evening, other grownups stopping by, their questions politely deflected, their kids’ voices ringing from the pool like clamor from a past life. Standing outside the room in his baggy swimtrunks, assailed by well-meaners, my father would feel humiliated and full of blame, these emotions unrelievable by the surgery he habitually inflicted on his nails, but sufficiently disguised by his charm that only I, listening in the dark room, could detect the hazardousness of his mood, which sought, which had to seek, an object. At 10 I believed nobody else had real insight into my father, not my brother or sister who understood hardly anything, not my mother whose adoration of him outwardly resembled suffering omniscience but who was in fact easily deflected by his contrarieties. Now it was she who intervened. My little brother had not meant to hurt anyone, had he? That tender, harassing spell cast by adults coercing a right answer: it was surprising how instantly we welcomed that (their welcoming it was plain in their voices, and as for my welcoming it, I could feel that). Of all of us, my brother was the only one beloved by the other four, his crying the only heartbreaking crying. Outside the door he was crying now, he was (I closed my eyes and knew this for sure) shuddering, goosefleshed, wet hair sleeked to his skull and pathetic ears jutting out, arms hanging at his sides, shaking his head no, no, no, no, no, no, and in that dark hotel room I was relieved that my mother knew how to manage the questioning by which he could be forgiven, and within relief a doorway opened into sleep.

Enormous suitcases, jade and beige and navy, jammed together in a rattling bulwark smelling of sunstruck plastic, shade a narrow canyon lined with a flannel sleeping bag whose hunters and retrievers alternate with flushed pheasants. The fact that the pheasants are bigger than the hunters and their dogs and if they flew at them instead of away could crush them with a few decisive wingbeats arouses an aesthetic revulsion intense to the point of nausea: I need to correct this, to write a letter to the sleeping-bag people, enclosing a pheasant-setter-hunter drawing so piercingly right they would wonder who this girl is and resolve to find her to hire her to design all future sleeping-bag-flannel vignettes. My forehead sweats, the roots of my hair sweat; sweat runs from between my shoulderblades down my spine with a feeling like being crawled on and not minding, and I close my eyes and coax that sensation to the center where it’s the war of slow-sliding creepy arousal versus pain. If you have three children in the back seat one is always in the middle, nudged and bothered and whisper-taunted from the left and from the right. The answer is always no, but every trip begins with someone begging to ride in the rear of the station wagon, called in our family the Wayfarback, sweet as a vacant house is sweet, as only unclaimed spaces ever are, carpeted in clean scratchiness, offering what can be found nowhere else in our life, the ambiguity of being close yet unseen: a child in the Wayfarback can’t be surveilled by glances in the rear-view mirror. Can’t be seat-belted in, either, making it appealingly dangerous. So why is it mine, this hot rumpled hidey-hole? Attuned to injustice–savage keeners of no fair!–my little brother and sister are quiet in the face of this travesty, gratified by their own quietness, which seems grownup and inexplicable. Mother-and-father silence followed my saying plaintively, two or three times before we left the hotel room this morning, Something’s wrong. With my left arm, with the little finger and the fourth finger and the thumb of my left hand–something’s wrong it feels really strange. To which no one said even It’ll be all right in a little while. Wearing the same clothes as yesterday I was standing there saying look with my whole incredulous body. My mother who didn’t like to touch me helped me work my swollen arm out of the sleeve of my t-shirt but even then she didn’t do the thing I wanted, she didn’t look, and because she didn’t look it changed into something not quite mine, my arm, and I got a little divorce from it, like getting distance from a lie you’re going to disown before long. I couldn’t knot the cowboy bandana I was obsessed with, so she did, though she hated it and was always trying to talk me out of it on the grounds girls didn’t look good with rags around their necks. Then astounding license: You can ride in the very back. With the smashing of strictness, the air in the station wagon brightens, my father calls my mother honey, which makes everyone feel as if they’ve been called honey, my brother and sister trade the Etch-a-Sketch back and forth, and I lie on my stomach in the Wayfarback, turning the pages of Smoky the Cowhorse. It was my rope-callused hand Smoky snatched the apple from, my sunburnt neck the bandana circled, only now (I suddenly saw) the bandana could be used to wrap my forearm–a feverish cowboy would do that if he was shot with an arrow. When the wrapping seemed to help I found the rag used to wipe condensation from the back window and swaddled my hand, figuring out how to encompass the outsize, yammering fingers, too, although the thumb remained an orphan with a big, throbbing heartbeat. I wished I had a scrap for it. Eternity could be broken into bearable slabs by the ritual of loosening the bindings and winding them tighter, the baseball game fading and reviving on the radio and my father calling the glorious salute Attaboy! and the sun lasering between suitcases to ignite hot stripes on my legs while I slept, and I slept a lot, and when I woke there was a fraction of an instant when my old life was back and all was well, and that was snatched away. How wrong I’d been not to have loved my unbroken arm more. My mother unfolded the map of America with every Howard Johnson’s on it. My father said Shoes on, kids. The back door swung up, me blinking at the loss of my cave, clambering out to the asphalt where the bare-legged beauty of the other four struck me sharply. Glass doors opened into the mercy of air-conditioning in a circus-bright barrage of orange and turquoise, the gauze bow in the small of the waitress’ back led us in single file between tables of families, and I held my scarecrow arm close to my body, but more than one waitress raised her eyebrows and would have inquired if she hadn’t, in time, registered my parents’ unwillingness to engage. There was another hotel-room night; there was bacon and eggs and Tang that astronauts drank. Look, kids, the Cumberland Gap, your great-great-grandpa rode home through here after he lost his leg at The Wilderness, we’ll go there sometime. Rode home one-legged? He could get a prit good hold, his stump was long enough, down to the knee. Bill! Don’t go into details! There was prit to evoke the ghost’s voice and prove the Civil War had happened; there was fog, the headlights’ shafts filled with rolling plumes, the dented guardrail the only thing between us and the abyss; there was my father’s tale of the Model A he first learned to drive and the red mud it foundered in, and how it was pulled out with a neighbor’s mule who could count and do tricks and would neatly, with its big mule lips peeled back, take an apple from between its owner’s wife’s teeth; there was my father imitating the mule’s grimace and when my mother didn’t laugh, doing it again; there was my mother’s Yankee reticence and delicacy and irony, about to become drawbacks in the encounter with my father’s family. She was hard to make sense of, in Tennessee.

The fraying, dirty mummification of my arm enchanted my cousins as if I had carried a filthy stray cat into their house and then refused to give it up. This was seen as boldness on my part: the lawlessness they imagined for me was an outline I would have poured myself into if I could. They wanted to touch and poke and unwrap, and since that would earn me more reverent attention of the kind boys pay only to what slightly sickens them, I would have let them. But my aunt said Boys. Now you leave it alone. My cousins stuck close, honoring the leprous itness of my arm. Asked by my aunt about the pain, I don’t think I was constrained by loyalty to my parents’ version, which was that nothing was broken. The doubleness of my vantage point–aware they were wrong but sure they were perfect–wrecked my awareness of them; where what they want belonged, there was a blank, so I was honest with my aunt, and relieved by the distress she let show. Reined in only by my aunt’s Southern lady-ness, that distress verged on an indictment of my parents, especially my mother; but my aunt held her tongue and didn’t accuse her of anything, not where I could hear, and, I think, not to anyone, because it wouldn’t have served any purpose, not really, or made it any easier to accomplish what she right away determined to do, which was get me to a doctor. My aunt had brown eyes so dark they were often described as black, enviable eyes, as hers was an enviable high-cheekboned black-haired drawling beauty that hadn’t gotten her into too much trouble, either because she was naturally sensible or had set out to cultivate happiness. She’d married my father’s droll, softspoken, easygoing little brother, and their household seemed miraculous to me, so much so that on previous annual visits I had insisted on watching my aunt do every little thing, spellbound by her gentleness and determined to attract as much of it as I could to myself. This greed of mine for my aunt’s company didn’t go unremarked, and it embarrassed my mother. If she’d liked my aunt less, she might have held it against her, or conjectured to my father late at night when they were finally alone that my aunt was egging me on in my ridiculous infatuation, with the secret aim of making Bill’s Yankee wife look bad. My aunt’s nature was equable and warm and self-effacing, qualities my restless hypercritical mother did not possess but religiously impersonated. As sometimes happens, two women who seem exactly positioned for mutual loathing ended up forging a spirited conspiracy, whose great staple was discussion of their men, those very different brothers.

At the hospital I was sugah’d and sweetheart’d, endearments good as opium. The dream of benevolence was pierced by my fear when the doctor bent close. I hadn’t bathed since the accident and my skin radiated the stench of fever and chlorine, but the possibility that he would be repelled by me did not concern me–that wasn’t it, though what I was afraid of was like smelling bad: it was present, like a taint, when the doctor leaned in. It was the possibility of being deeply shamed. With his mannerly Tennessee-slow slightly formal inquisitiveness the doctor might assent to my parents’ view that nothing real was wrong, and attention-lover that I was I would be seen as having impersonated brokenness and spun a fable of pain. Could that be, could I have done that? Across a wall, at adult eye-level, ran the sequence of black x-ray sheets, and I gazed up at the frail light of my bones while grownup voices took polite turns, the longest, Southernest turn belonging to the doctor. You know how if you take a little stick and give it a good twist it will splinter out with the strain but not snap clear through? What’s called a greenstick fracture. Fractures here, here, and here, too. The truth of x-rayed bone, the lifted-up feeling of rescue, the sensuousness of the expert winding of plaster-soaked gauze, spindly as layers of papier mâché, around and around until the hurt arm vanished.

The opposite of hospital order and clarity and decisiveness is the velvet passivity of sinking into the high-backed seats of a darkening theater, but whose whim was this? Down at the thrilling level where children piece together rumors of what adults find dirty, this movie was a source of joking and awe and backyard reenactment: This bad guy kills women by sneaking in while they’re sleeping and painting them gold, all over so their skin can’t breathe. They die? If a person’s skin can’t breathe they die. Wouldn’t it wake you up to be painted–you’d feel it? They’re just in real deep sleep. The painting happens fast. They used real gold. This one woman, while they were painting they forgot to leave her a patch of bare skin to breathe through and she died. In real life, died, and you get to see her. For my aunt and uncle as evangelicals, the corruption that could attend movie-going wasn’t taken lightly; how did they ever agree to Bond? I can’t explain it, unless the movie was meant as reckless compensation for the ordeal of the hospital, which had left the grownups in a dangerous state of disenchantment with each other. Maybe some unprecedented enchantment was needed, which could embrace them in its scandalous arms–maybe it had to be scandalous or it wouldn’t constitute enough of a break, it wouldn’t do the trick. Neither can the adults’ decision to sit apart from us children be explained, unless their apartness seemed the route to undistracted calm and unity. So: to the gilding and velvet and shushing of Southern audience voices, to five cousins in thrall to each others’ nearness, alert to every flicker of an eyelid in a cousin’s profile. The troubling parts are going to go right over their heads, the grownups had decided, a satisfying conclusion all round, for them because it guaranteed them a respite from the strained aura of mutual apology that had overtaken them at the hospital, for us because we fully intended to absorb every bit of sex and violence. In the downfalling twilight I rested my brand-new cast on the armrest and admired its luminous whiteness, the separate aluminum splint that shielded my thumb, the cute pawlike entrapment of my other fingertips showing at the cast’s end. Then it was dark. For music there was a moaningly erotic blare of trumpets whose notes were prolonged with anyaaaah nyaaaaaah obnoxiousness well known to children. Bond, too, was gloriously obvious: he did whatever he wanted. We understood! How beguiled we were to find ourselves surfing the shockwaves of a movie for grownups. We grew bolder, also for some reason indifferent to each other, staring without whispering. Deep in the movie, in the silk sheets where Bond had left her the night before, a woman lay on her side, her hair swerving across a pillow, her back to us, what my dad called the cheeks of her ass exposed, just a little string running down between them. Bond came in. Bond sat on the edge of the bed. She was bare bright overpowering gold, the tilt of shoulder declining to the tuck of waist, the hip the high point of a luminous dune tapering to rigid feet. Had she slept through her own death? Or wakened to feel consciousness beat its wings against suffocating skin? How long did it take? What came next? In his white pajamas, his back straight, Bond extended his fingertips to the glazed throat. No thudding, no pulse, only calm metal thingness like a tin can’s, a car fender’s. We sat there hushed and oppressed and sorry. My cousins hadn’t moved a fraction of an inch but they had gotten farther away. Maybe to my cousins, maybe to something else, I directed an inarticulate wish along the lines of Come back, come back. The wish could do nothing. It was a trammelled, locked-in wish beating against other people’s unknownness. It wasn’t going to work. Aloneness wasn’t going anywhere. While my soul hung waiting for the next part of my life I looked down at my arm, emerging into visibility as the lights came up. Under plaster and gauze was the ghost of the x where I had once bled into somebody and she had bled into me, and it worked, that x, and if it worked once it could work again, or something like it could, the x of one body held to the x of another, and this notion stirred me, though I didn’t know enough about bodies to make the desire any more authoritative or detailed than that, I didn’t know this was sex. But I knew it was a way out. Find Jenny and ask her if she loves you and when she says yes say good because I do too. And like magic, I did. Love her.

They were reality. Like everybody’s parents, they were the most real thing there was. It was not possible to blame them, it would not have occurred to me at 10. The truth is I was sickened by myself for being a child they wanted not to know about. I repudiated myself because I could find no way to matter, it was my failure and I understood that another, more beautiful child could have had a hold on them. Yet it seemed possible that by force of will I could become this other, more beautiful child. Was it a thing a non-beloved child could figure out–could replicate? How long would it take? This was an emergency. I was wrong, in my wrongness I was alienating them, and either I was doing things wrong, or I was imbued with wrongness, irretrievably wrong, a wrong self, and that could not be changed, and it could not be borne. Therefore it must be the case that I was doing things wrong, and if I was doing things wrong, then it was only a matter of beginning to do things right, and I could do that, I would, I had to, it was life or death to me to be loved by them, so I would do things beautifully, beginning now.

If they have both been lost to me by death, gone for years, that hasn’t changed things: death, it turns out, can’t touch the deep aura of waiting, the lifelong spell that is the need for them to see.

Elizabeth Tallent teaches in the writing program at Stanford University. Reprinted from
The Threepenny Review (Spring 2013), a quarterly magazine of essays, poetry, and exciting new fiction.

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