A cube of friction
For all I know: there may be life on Mars.
I like to think of that; life as we don’t know it would be red, color of blood and fire. Bread would be red, if there were bread; books would be yellow because books are different.
My hair wants to be red, and so I give it that. My sister’s hair was yellow-blonde, hello-blonde; chlorine-green when it touched the pool where we dove for pennies. I wanted to be the penny she picked up, so I dyed my hair to look like something she might want to touch. When my youngest brother was still unashamed to suck his thumb out loud, he’d stand behind her chair and stroke her hair as if it were a magic comfort blanket, what little people call their babas, or their didis. My sister was magic, though more like a sparkler on the Fourth of July. Once she lit a firecracker and held it until it went off. I still don’t know why she held it, didn’t lob it capably like her older brothers: was it the fascination with its heat that stunned her so? Was it that she wanted to gift it to our mother, born on Independence Day, wanted to give her mother something as beautiful and dangerous as our mother herself, who did not love her back with equal force? They took my sister to the ER, bandaged her blisters, punished her foolishness. Within a year they’d locked her up in a crazy house, not ours but a proper one in Hartford, where no one visited her. That was my sister’s punishment, for being wild for fire and in love with her mother.
Being less than perfect’s a sin, you know: you can get locked up for that.
And so she was.
My mother’s brother, Jimmy, is crazy. He is crazy in a red, Martian way. He lives on the streets in Boulder. It’s a wonder that I forget him in most breaths, then remember him in one single singe which flames my lungs with shame. We never speak of him. Never did. I saw a picture of him as an adult once, when I was sifting through my great-aunt’s stuff after she died. There it was: a picture of my mother as a man. I stared at it while the blaze licked my liver. I pocketed it and never told my mother it existed.
Tell me what you see when you think of him, I asked my mother once. Him with a gun, shooting at my feet – I don’t want to talk about it, she said. I pushed for a while. I wanted to explain how much I understand: that when I think of my brother Mike, I see him shooting a needleful of skag into his left arm’s vein, but he’s her son so she can never choose to understand. All I wanted to know was: Does the blaze ever lick her liver, too? Does she wake up in the navel of the night to find herself in a puddle of horror, as I do? Does she wake up with a start, at the thought that she has a brother and she forgot, that her brother is sleeping on the steps of a church?
Nobody – you have my word on it – will ever see this man. He is invisible now, to the strangers who pass by him, to the family who’s cut his face out of family photos (such as they are). Since 1960, no one related to him by red blood has set eyes upon this man. There are days when I want to fly out to Boulder, go search the streets, but I tuck those days into my bra-strap and I keep on living clean. Schizophrenia is contagious, like cooties. I know how to make a cootie-catcher, fold it out of paper and trap a child’s fingers inside to cleanse them, but I have no remedy for crazy uncles who do not exist. There is nothing to hold onto, save the photograph of my mother as a man, straight hair to his shoulders. Perhaps it is my mother.
Perhaps I am the Martian, bright red alien who insists on telling the truth, even if it is 2:49 am by the green light on my lover’s clock radio. That clock radio was not in my house, so I left, homesick for my notebook and my cat. When my own clock radio said 3:21 am, I turned to the cat and said, This is the price we have to pay for having tails, isn’t it? She agreed on how that was true for the two of us, then she tucked me under the covers, turned off the CD player and the lights and said, Hush now. Time for sleep. Just before I nodded off, she whispered: I never said having a tail was easy, now did I? You never did, I said, and then she kissed my tail and said, But this is the very what which makes us free. Don’t forget to let me out in the morning.
Late the next afternoon, food arrived. There was a large dish with a silver top. I opened it and found my sister, apple in her mouth, garnished all around with greens. So that’s what’s become of you? I asked, taking the apple out of her mouth. My family was carving her sides, putting her flanks onto their white plates. Uncle Jimmy was Jello, for dessert. This is what happens, she said; this is what they do to you if they find out you have a tail. Yours is slipping out of your skirt, she whispered; so I tucked it back in and announced I was a vegetarian. I smiled politely enough, made it sound political so they’d believe me. When they gave me leftovers to take home. I left them by the feet of the beggarman, sound asleep on the steps of the church. Because you never know.
Piero della Francesca did know.
He painted it and I saw it,
in a book and on a wall.
The soldiers who guard Christ’s tomb
are fast asleep, jumbled like resting dogs.
Christ looks straight out at me,
one hand up,
wearing red, and tells me
he’s on his way back home;
please don’t wake the soldiers now.
He’s wearing red,
he’s going up,
not down in fire like the one
that tongues my navel when I think
of Uncle Jimmy:
in a mold,
on the big Thanksgiving spread.
Eliot is right: April sure is cruel. Cherie and I saw crocuses, around the corner, and I thanked them. I am good at saying grace; I keep watch for what lives, despite. My sister is alive and well. She had to leave this country to be herself, to keep her tail, but she did what had to be done. Her daughter’s tail is as long and inevitable as an alligator’s, and my sister celebrates it, best she can. My mother cannot love anyone any more than she does. My sister will not forgive this, she should not, but on my mother’s deathbed they will make peace. This will happen once my mother’s tail has slipped out from the bedclothes to thump loudly on the floor.
I know what a secret is,
and I know how to keep it.
I know how to keep my tail tucked in –
most of the time, I know.
I only forget when the sun
shines in my eyes and I want
to look straight at it,
and say its name out loud.
It’s then I forget
that a tongue is to be bitten,
not like an apple,
but like a ruby secret.
I love my tongue too much.
I am as attached to it
as it is to me,
there at the base of my jaw.
I see people order tongue sandwiches;
I wonder if they know they might be
eating poets’ tongues.
In India cows are sacred,
no one eats them:
do they know from dreams that
cows sing songs,
jump over the moon,
think longer thoughts that even dolphins?
My sister rode Flipper once:
I watched her ride the TV dolphin
and I knew, right then and there,
as I watched her face go free,
that she was far too wonderful
to be allowed to stay with me very long.
I had to leave my lover, in the middle of that night, because I said, Stroke my tail, and he said I was a Manx. The word’s too close to man: I am as strong as any man I’ve ever met but then I’ve never met Uncle Jimmy. Have you noticed, my father has never been mentioned? He was from the Isle of Man, but I am not. There is an island I am from; I just don’t know its name. Not yet. I will, though. I see its outlines when I fly; I see its contours far below me, on the nights when I sprout wings. I long to land like Knut, the color-blind Norwegian, who lived alone until he flew to the island of the color-blind. When he got off the plane and squinted out, he saw all the islanders squinting back, smiling, all rods and no cones. They fished at night with great success. This is how it works there: power shakes hands at dusk, when those who see color go inside to sleep helpless in the dark, and those who see everything else go outside, into the moonlight, and say all they know to Knut, who knows it all, too.
For all I know: I know for all.
How I Make Pangaea
Somehow, I have had more trouble writing this short essay than I had, writing “Longing for Pangaea.” Suddenly definitions are required. Or are they? Do you need me to tell you the square footage of what’s true in this life? Who of you cannot understand the piece without the definition of “friction,” which is just a form I made up, and is only “what happens when I rub poetry against prose, fiction against non-fiction, with memory as the flint”?
I am always speaking directly to you, the reader. Always with an open heart. I hope that you speak back to me; my e-mail address is available here. I think art only takes place halfway in the making, where the other half lives – in the reading or seeing or hearing. Call and response. Respond to me.
Though one well-meaning friend warns me that perhaps I should not admit that photos talk to me, I must anyway: the last line of the piece comes directly at me from the small photograph of Frida Kahlo on a tiny easel on my desk. She always tells me that art can begin just by looking in the mirror. Diego Rivera required whole walls and thousands of invented faces, but Frida reminds me to do as she did: just look in the mirror and dare to say, at every step, “I know this to be true.” Then attach a deer’s arrow-riddled body as required, add monkeys all around. Study your own toes in the bathtub, and you will happen upon your entire genealogy.
One last assumption, indispensable to my work: a line from my first performance piece ever, and now my constant steadying assumption:
Everything is always true at the same time.
Stern's e-mail: email@example.com
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