by Alanna Schubach
with photographs by Eryk Salvaggio
You imagine time flowing backward, back upstream: the apartment door swings open and the messenger from the lawyer’s office comes into your living room, loads up the boxes onto a dolly, and leaves with them. The dust falls through the beam of light from your window and settles back on the scarred wooden floor. The boxes wait again in the corner of the lawyer’s office. In the hospital, long wiry hairs suddenly lift up from the musty pillow, re-implant themselves in your mother’s dented skull. (The abiding image, for some reason, is her hair at its healthiest: dark glossy coils of it. You had a dream recently that you came home and found it winding like a rope along dream-lengthened hallways, and you followed it with the growing sense that where it would ultimately lead would be unfamiliar, not really your mother at all, some demonic reverse Rapunzel, and yet you were nevertheless propelled forward, as though someone were tugging at the other end.) Eventually she sits up, combs her long hair, more hairs returning from the brush to her head. Doctors remove the morphine drip. Her flesh puffs back into firmness. She leaves the room, sucking the sick air into herself, drives to the office to retrieve the boxes. At home, she opens one and takes a sheet of paper. Ink flows from the cramped cursive on the page and back into her pen; words into her brain. Her thoughts curl once more inside her, unform themselves into vague image, memory, piled heavily atop each other like drifts of snow. As you back into her house at the end of your visit, she tells you she thinks it will be all right. That you can go.
But no: here are the boxes on your living room floor, here is the disturbed dust swirling in the intruding sunlight. Your mother, the poet Valentina Veselka, is nowhere. And you have a decision before you: to obey her imperative, the only thing she has left you, or not.
* * *
You meet Mary and Knut at a characterless bar in Midtown East, chosen for its equidistance from your apartments. His real name isn’t Knut; you came up with that before you even started dating him. The first time you met, in the dorm room party of a mutual friend, he was reading Hunger by Knut Hamsen, whom you’d never heard of. You were pleased by how antisocial the act was.
“Hey Knut,” you’d said, and each time after that. It fit doubly once you learned that he was a bit of a nut, and it sounded nicer than just saying so. Now that Mary’s dating him, she calls him Knut too.
Mary is wearing a short green skirt, a snug black top, and enormous rain boots. She’s a dominatrix at a dungeon downtown called Mistress Genevieve’s. You like casually weaving this into conversation with people, how impressed they seem with your life, in which having a friend who pisses on men after grinding boot heels into their soft bellies is no big thing. You can sort of see some far-off future in which the mention of her truly will be casual, thanks to the intervening life between now and then grinding the unorganized mass of all things for you into stories, each with its own sensible place.
“Sit next to Remy so she doesn’t feel alone,” Mary says, and Knut plops down beside you in the booth, splashing up a familiarly spicy smell: you see him at home, still obediently applying the same deodorant each morning, maybe pinching at the skin beneath his chin, which he always worried was conspiring to form an additional chin. Mary had, at least, first asked your permission to date him.
You make up your mind to tell them about the lawyer, the boxes. Every decision is a turn off a long hallway into an ever-narrowing series of rooms, you stumbling forward through the succession of doors failing to block the feeling of the abandoned ones pressing against your back, accusing. Now you have stepped into the room of this conversation, a room of concern-flooded eyes, confession.
“Valentina,” Knut says, shaking his head. “She had to leave you with some intangible.” He still seems to feel an entitlement to your family, the right to warm weariness.
“Well it’s a legally binding contract,” Mary says. “That’s pretty, like, definite.”
Knut asks you when you’re going to do it.
“I haven’t decided if I’m doing it at all.”
“What will you do instead?” Mary asks.
“Send it to her publisher?”
Knut turns to you already full of objection. Looking at his outraged face makes you want to punch it so you throw back your drink and stare instead at the pockmarked ceiling.
“Look, I’m a huge Valentina fan,” Knut says. “I think she’s brilliant. But you have to respect her wishes.”
“Why?” Mary says. “Like the dead care?”
“She cared enough to make these preparations ahead of time.”
“People want more,” you say, mostly to see what will happen.
“Tough shit!” Knut says. “It’s not like they deserve it.”
“I wonder if I could be held in contempt.” You say this wonderingly, loosely, rolling around the idea. You know at some sober point later it will harden and become genuinely worrisome.
“Look at Remy,” Mary says. “I love how fast she gets drunk. Remy, say something outrageous.”
“Pretty soon Knut is going to try to come on your face.”
Mary lets out a whoop of laughter. This is why you keep her, you think, this and the ability to tell people you know a dominatrix: how you feel lighter, meaner around her, how so much is not only permitted but rewarded.
“You’re late with that warning,” Mary says. You’re pleased to feel Knut continuing to sulk beside you.
Later they walk you to the train. As Knut staggers over to the halal cart outside the station, Mary quickly presses her fingers into your palm and leans in. “You sure you OK? You don’t want to come back with us tonight?” You imagine Knut glowering at you from the dark corners of the apartment like a territorial cat. “Don’t worry,” you say.
“No, I don’t worry about you,” Mary says, her eyes full of worry. Guilt closes in on you, at the ease with which you dispassionately judge her, every minute.
When you close your eyes the train slowly revolves around you, and you know at some point you will vomit. When you get home, you move down the hallway without flipping the lights on, and see the grayish hulks of boxes piled in your living room. “Still here?” you say to them, and laugh, the sound hoarse and separate from the smooth gliding of New York traffic outside your window.
* * *
A memory of Knut:
You two walked the grassy edges of Route 48 on his first visit home to your mother. As the sky darkened the stars began to poke through, one by one. He was talking about how he loved the city but wasn’t sure the love was good, helpful. He knew he had something to say but was afraid it got engulfed by the bright lights, the noise, the belching smoke and exhaust. Maybe he ought to be out here, in the suburbs, where he could hear the wind in the trees and the crickets. Maybe if he had stillness, what he wanted to say would rush in to fill it—or not to fill it but to give the stillness a texture that he could run his fingertips over and then transmit to everyone: a messenger, bearing his own singular message. It was in there somewhere but so difficult to find.
“How does your mother do it?” he asked you.
“Ask her,” you told him, your words a doorstop against the flood of earnest feeling. He felt you did not try very hard to understand. He would see your eyes glaze as he spoke into worries about dinner, train times, your boss’ frustration at your lack of attention to detail, black rocks that his concerns, at once dreamier and realer, simply rushed past. You resented this: how he wouldn’t help you clear the dishes and rinse them and put them in the dishwasher, because he had become absorbed in something he was reading, he was writing, he was listening to—as though those tasks were beneath him, but not beneath you. I’d like to just ignore them and get lost in a book, too, you’d tell him, but this has to get done somehow. You’d say this, but were not certain that any of it was true.
“OK,” you said. “I don’t think she practices anything—not stillness, not seeking. She’s just like a channel—a medium. It just seems to move through and out of her, without any effort.” He was staring ahead into the dark road but also, it seemed, looking at you. “I guess that sounds mystical.”
“It is mystical,” he agreed. “I believe in that. I’ve felt that way before. But it’s very rare. It’s something you have to tap into, but you can’t make yourself tap into it.”
“Yeah,” you said. “She just like… is.” Thinking you sounded like a parody of a college student. Of an aspirant. What you most admired about Knut was his embrace of that risk; a decision he’d apparently made long ago to simply walk through the walls of irony, cynicism, that kept others in tiny, bitter courtyards. Your mother, too, continuously opened her arms wide to earnest feeling, but it seemed to have never occurred to her that there was anything else to do—therefore, Knut was braver. A familiar annoyance twisted inside you at her seemingly secret world, one you suspected you understood better than even she did—but there was no way to relate this, so you were condemned to be the thick one, the slow, the enmeshed in the molasses grind of day to day life while she floated above, somewhere else. Knut thought he had more in common with your mother than with you, and he was wrong, but there was no way of dissuading him. The few times you had tried to explain a feeling to him, one of the deepest buried ones, he responded, “I understand what that’s like,” or, “I know just what you mean,” perhaps meant to comfort through communion, but it said to you instead, there’s nothing you can think I haven’t thought. There’s no unknown territory in you to explore. His footprints had crisscrossed every corner.
You decided to try it with him. “Anyway,” you said, “I know what you’re saying.”
He outstretched an arm, encircled you, pulled you in. “Thanks hon,” he said, but what his eyes said was, no you don’t, you don’t, you don’t.
* * *
On the train ride to your father’s house you catch through hangover blear some graffiti on the wall of a gray municipal building, something about fuck this town. How quaint, to hate a town. To resent your feet staked to its well-worn earth. To actually be staked!
Out of the limpid pools of memory floats another graffito: Life’s a bitch and then you die so fuck the world and let’s get high. Wavering black on the wall of the handball court at your elementary school. You and your mother passed it on a walk one day and she said that it was the perfect poem: the simplicity of the rhyme, the absence of syllabic variation, its bravado and despair. “There’s no response to it,” she said, “and a million responses.”
Once when you were seventeen you got into a fight with her in the car and finally exploded at her nonchalance, her un-understanding, “I hate you.”
“Good,” she said, in that accent that sounded to you at such moments unbearably thick and stupid, “then go.”
She pulled over and stared at you with flat blue eyes. A car behind you began to honk with a franticness hilariously out of sync with the surroundings, the corn fields and tilting empty sky, but your mother didn’t acknowledge it. You teetered on a moment between rage and laughter: you could have laughed, she would have too. You opened the door and climbed out and slammed it and she drove away. Her car waned to a dark smear on the horizon.
On the three mile walk home you plotted revenge. You could just wander; circle the pastures or hide in the aisles of a 7-11 long enough that she’d worry some hick had snatched you away. Or you could take the bus to your father’s, but he’d turn his face away: “You must have done something.” He refused to come between the two of you even when it would be to his advantage. You hated, too, his piety, how he hewed to it no matter how inconvenient.
The sun dropped lower and roadside grime coated the soles of your feet. You were wearing sandals, and the layer of dust that collected between your skin and the leather gave you chills. You were hemmed in then by everything, the dumb darkening sky and the lonely cars on the road, their headlights pulling them home, the sign that was your halfway mark reading Welcome to Long Island Wine Country, your mother, the ridiculous petulance she coaxed out of you even in these last days of your young womanhood, the cicadas buzzing, the excruciating familiarity of it all: how could it ever let you go? You had worn a circle around your whole life.
You had hoped to outwalk the sick throb in your chest, and when you arrived home, grubby with road dust and sweat, it seemed your mother at least had. She greeted you casually, without even a thread of irony woven through her smooth voice, led you to the dinner table in the dining room under the slow hum of the ceiling fan.
Which was it? The game she invented? The one you did? Or was it the one you decided upon silently, together, the one you thought you’d play for all time?
* * *
You told your father you would walk from the train station, but when you arrive at his house you’re sticky and bitter at the stickiness. He should have insisted on picking you up. You ring the bell and it echoes inside the empty house.
He’s in the back, crouched over his tomato plants, smoking a joint. Pale hairy legs that end in bright yellow gardening clogs. Your friends always used to say, “Oh, your dad’s so cute,” as though there was no awareness crouched behind the quirks, as though he thought he was normal.
“They’re big,” you say, of his pale green globes.
He rubs your head with a dirty hand. “I have no idea how it happened,” he says. “I was just messing around.” He likes to do things vaguely like this, poking at random from all sides, accomplishing without really inhabiting reality. He passes you the joint. He was always pleased when you’d get sidetracked in the midst of a project, unlike your mother, who would stream like a harpoon through the murky depths of an idea.
Shortly before they divorced—you were fifteen or so—you helped him clean out your grandparents’ basement. Digging through a cardboard box filled with old tax returns he unearthed his high school yearbook: Pike Street School, ’71, Reach for the Skies! You hunched with him over the sharp black-and-white photos; the lost kids, with their funny thick eyeglasses, their towering haircuts, smiled brightly back. Every now and then your father would point out the ones who died: “cancer,” or “drugs,” or “car crash,” punctuated by a “hmm,” a “huh,” sounds of bland wonderment. Then he reached a girl with soft blond hair framing a round face: “They found her in a hotel room—” and stopped. You knew you could push him forward, learn more, but you sensed that behind the membrane of casualness that there was something throbbing and dangerous. So you said nothing and gazed with him at her square on the yellowing page. The same square for everyone, no matter the size of the impression they left.
There was an old graveyard near your house where you and your mother would walk, and one day shortly after the basement cleaning you stopped in front of one of the stones, Jonah Friedman, 1917—1969, thinking the — was everything, the — held all the gems and detritus of a life, and sensed her watching you, and again did not speak. You knew if you had, there was the possibility something would be taken from you. Converted through her weird alchemy into art.
You follow him into the house and take a seat across from him at the kitchen table. You trace an index finger along the edges of a stain from a coffee cup, a dull brown ring, thinking that it makes sense the house will fall into disarray now that your mother’s gone, even though they hadn’t lived together for ten years. Your tongue sticks to the roof of your mouth and you ask for a glass of water.
“Lightweight,” your father says, and pours it. You find yourself telling him about the boxes crowding you out of your living room, back across the long miles in Queens, though you hadn’t planned to right away, you had thought instead that you would ease into it over the course of the visit.
He shrugs. “Guess you better do what she says.”
The cranes sit atop the table, stationed on either side of the stain. Your mother bought him the gold statues for his birthday many years before. One is bent over as if to drink from a pool; the other extends its neck skyward, about to open its delicate wings. As your father opened the gift, your mother stood tensed over him, ready to pounce and share his delight. Instead he looked up, his face a question.
“Stuff?” he asked. “You got me stuff?”
“Oh no,” she said, and started laughing. “I thought you’d like them! They’re from that antique store on South Plymouth…”
“I like them,” he said, “but, I mean…” and his words scattered away into his own laugh. “Do you know me at all?”
“Remy convinced me,” your mother said, although you had done no such thing, only agreed with her that they were quite pretty. “We just got caught up in a moment.”
He lifted the tall one. “A backscratcher?” he said, and arching his hand over his head with it, scraped its beak along his broad back. You stood and watched them tangled in their joined laughter, tears coming into your mother’s eyes, you smiling too but also thinking that behind the smile there was something unspeakably sad. Your mother hadn’t really known him, or anyone. She couldn’t have written those poems if she had focused on knowing anything but the contours of herself. You think now that maybe it hadn’t occurred to her at all, the way her imperative would challenge and exhaust you, or that if it had, she didn’t think much of it, since that was all she had ever done to you. You think, looking at the cranes, everything has a daytime side and a nighttime side. You realize you’re pretty stoned.
“Look, why don’t I drive you back to the city?” your father suggests. “I could help you destroy them. We could take them to the bridge and throw them into the river or something. It would be a nice memorial, don’t you think?”
The idea is so comforting. It flows over you like warm bathwater. He looks at you, red rimming his eyes, this time waiting on you to receive your gift.
“No,” you tell him. “You can’t help me.”
* * *
Your mother wrote about babies haloed in plastic and thrown in the trash, she wrote the psalm of a murdered twelve-year-old, she wrote about a drive from San Diego to Mexico and how the dead insects splayed on window glass became increasingly exotic, angels from an alien world, she wrote about the silhouette of a man in a dark hotel room on a sunny day, she wrote about her own image bouncing back at her in the bright blue pool off her father’s sunglasses when he taught her to swim at the resort in Sochi, about the animal terror she felt for ten minutes at losing you in a shopping mall herd.
These were just hints at the shadows in the valleys of her world. Which is why you decided to go to Russia your junior year of college: all the stories began there, and you had none. Which is also why you decided you’d let slip the tight ropes around your chest for once and breathe deep, taking in even the smog. Which is why that night you ventured far out past where you had once decided your threshold lay, why you waved your friends out of the club and let it dawn gradually on you, like the creeping up to shrill violins of a horror movie soundtrack, that a strange man was rubbing his erection against the sweaty small of your back, too far underwater with the pounding music to push him away with any force.
Then there were two more men with scary-blue eyes at each elbow, leading you onto the coughing streets and easing you into a cab, as you realized that in the morning you’d be embarrassed at how easily you’d played the naive foreigner, but also didn’t give a damn right now. How lucky, how lucky I am, you thought, settling into the black leather nest of the cab’s back seat and then beyond into muggy drifting, when a blast of cold and another arm dragged you back into the world. You were wavering on an empty sidewalk, the black sky hurtling above you, the cab driver staring at you.
“This isn’t it,” you said, and gave him your address in Russian several times, ashamed of your sloppy accent.
He kept shaking his head. Then he pointed at your mouth. Then his crotch.
“I don’t know,” you said. You couldn’t figure out what he was trying to tell you in his weird sign language. You just stood and giggled in embarrassment, until the embarrassment morphed into a dull black horror of comprehension.
“No,” you said, “no,” and started crying, and in the midst of your crying thought that maybe you could do it without throwing up. Just to get home and get to sleep, it won’t kill me. You had nearly convinced yourself when he got back into the car and drove off. You stood watching the red smear of brake lights fading against the oily black of the street. You thought of your mother at that very moment, in her pink terrycloth robe at her desk with her mug of coffee, squinting her sharp eyes at the chickenscratch in her notebook, how she would always stop for you, and for no one else. It was a generosity you couldn’t conceive of, you, who resented your roommate’s cough when it woke you up, no matter how sick she was from walking to class through the bleak winter gusts. You were sobbing so hard there on the street you thought you might die when you realized you were on your block. You had staggered toward it on some mysterious instinct, you with your pitiful sense of direction. And you thought that there was no poetry in this, your shaken cluelessness in the center of vacancy, dead leaves skittering like rodents in the street gutters.
* * *
You leave your father’s house the next morning before he wakes up and walk to the beach. It’s a north shore beach, rocky and unwelcoming, already cool and empty though it’s only mid-September. September has always struck you as a pensive month, a time to prepare for the unlocking from heat and light. Gulls circle and cry above the blank sand. You watch them warily, as though this will prevent them from shitting on you and ruining your perfect vision of yourself as a lonely and profound outline of a girl, a bright flaw in the eye of the world.
You realize her death is also the death of all the in-jokes and shared knowing looks, the secret language of your family, the passwords to the triangle you and your mother and father formed together.
You’re seven: you’re on the floor playing with Legos, your parents seated solidly behind you on the couch, when a Burger King commercial comes on, beaming a new jingle into your living room. Hold the pickles / hold the lettuce / special orders don’t upset us… your father laughs.
“That sounds exactly like ‘Dayenu’,” he says.
You turn and look up at him.
“You know, the Passover song? Ilu hotzi, hotzianu, motzianu mi mitzrayim, Dayenu.” He sings it, to your delight. It’s the highlight of the seder every year, belting out the sunny, mysterious words.
A weird expression settles over your mother’s face. “Do you two even know what that means?” she asks. She doesn’t wait for an answer. She stands up and climbs the stairs to her office. You hear the echo of her firm closing of its door.
‘Dayenu’, you know now, means “it would have been enough.” The song names the fifteen gifts from God to the Israelites, and swears after each that it alone would have been enough, had there been no further miracles. ‘Dayenu’ is also the name of your mother’s most famous poem. It’s a celebration of true freedom: the moments that you separate from the tireless string of your desires and dreams, and the quotidian aches that wrench the string continuously from you, to be nothing but particles touching other particles, vibrating, sated by communion. The moments that are so fleeting as to be only the auras you see after a flash of light, rather than the light itself, except your mother stopped them and solidified them and engraved them into paper.
But life constitutes the vast chasms between these moments. There is no “it would have been enough,” not for you or your mother or her sea of admirers, whom you envision as slender, bookish women, with thick eyeglasses reflecting pearly light, curled on their couches around hardcovers.
It doesn’t matter what she wanted, you think. Or, it is all that matters. You take off your shoes and socks and step into the slimy sand where the water begins. You wade into the icy ocean and await further instructions.
Alanna Schubach’s fiction has appeared in Prick of the Spindle, Post Road, Underwater New York, and The Bellevue Literary Review. She is originally from New York and lives in Fukuoka, Japan.
Eryk Salvaggio is a New England expat living in Japan. His photographs and writing can be found at www.thisjapaneselife.org