Monday, May 21, 2012

Smoking with Ghosts

The ritual of the cigarette, abandoned for twenty years, comes back easily.  Tap the unopened pack against the heel of your wrist.  Peel off the cellophane.  Select one; withdraw it from its mates.  Clamp it in your mouth.  Tilt your head to the side, spin the wheel on the lighter you found in the glove box.  Inhale. Exhaling is a deeply settling sigh of relief.

I don’t want anyone to see me engaging in this habit, so I take my dog to the empty field behind the shuttered grocery store.  I lean against my truck and smoke, while he trots from bush to hydrant to stump, reading the urine messages from his fellows.  I squint, watching him galloping gleefully through the long wild grass.  I watch him and my brain is silent.  I teeter, a meaningless figure on an accordion of time:  seventeen floods me.  I used to hang out at the edge of fields like this, at quarries, and at people’s homes.  With people who were, I guess, my friends.  I stood around useless and silent, smoking, with nothing to say.  Until I was drunk, the chasm was too vast and no words I could say would bridge it.  I didn’t speak their very foreign language.  Cans of beer would loosen my tongue and then I could pretend, and some recognizable sounds would slip out.

Chris tried to teach me the language of innocence and normalcy: he threw me a rope.  I hid my fractures from him.  With one hand, I clung to the pledge he offered; but my other hand clutched an invisible knife.  First I cut myself and then I severed the rope he’d thrown.

We explored leafy back roads in his mom’s burgundy car: we parked and talked.  We drank coffee in the mornings; we watched sunrises together before school.  We held hands.  We were sweet and tentative. He taught me to love pizza with mushrooms on it.  We hitch-hiked back and forth between each other’s houses.  Chris talked about our future.  We would have a house, after he joined the Coast Guard. 

I turned eighteen a month before Chris did and pretended I didn’t know how dangerous it was to go to a bar alone, without him.  We lived in small towns.  My older brother and coworkers from the diner where I washed dishes would be there.  What could go wrong?

When I first met him in the bar, Mark appeared thick and burly.  He was friends with my older brother.  His long hair and beard and moustache concealed most of his face, except for a full bottom lip and twinkly round eyes.  It was November.  He wore a leather jacket and chaps and boots.  He rode his motorcycle all year.  The bar was loud and cheerful against the bruised winter night and it was easy to believe the laughing, loud camaraderie was real.

Mark asked if he could buy me a beer and because I was naïve and newly eighteen, I didn't understand that his offer carried any particular weight.  We drank more than one beer together and he watched me throw darts and laughed when I missed the dartboard altogether. I trusted him.  When he offered me a ride home through the New England snow on his Harley Davidson, I accepted without hesitation. 

The next day he met me getting off the school bus.  I was proud to swing my leg over the back of his bike and we roared off towards his house, where he was going to make me dinner.  No one had ever made me dinner before and I felt very grown up.  When we arrived at his house and he took off the layers of jackets and his chaps, I saw that he was thin and lanky.  He saw me looking at him. 
Bandy motherfucker, ain’t I?
I just smiled.  I didn’t like to talk very much.  Other people’s stories never made sense to me: the things they say didn’t stay in the lines. If ever I pointed out the nonsense parts, they would grow impatient with my stupidity.  Really anyway I was busy worrying that I was too fat and maybe Mark wouldn’t like me and I certainly wouldn’t say that to him.  My heart hissed a distracting static: Chris-Chris-Chris.  I didn’t understand why I was there, at a stranger's strange house, or why I couldn’t feel anything.  I didn’t know where I was; if I’d walked out of the house, I would have been lost.  I felt as though I’d stepped blindly into quicksand.
I sat on a blue plaid couch alone in the living room while Mark made "dinner": chips with chili and cheese melted on top.  We drank beer from cans together and it got easier to relax and smile and not worry about my soft belly and feeling like a foreigner.
It was dark out when we went up to Mark’s room.  It was at the top of the stairs and under the eaves.   His housemates were not home.  I sat cross legged on his mattress on the floor while he squatted beside me and reached into a wardrobe and got out his pistol.  He showed it to me.  He took it apart and he put it back together.  I’d never known anyone who owned a gun before.  He said he would teach me how to use it.  He lay down beside me and kissed me.  His hand covered my breast.  He reached into the waistband of my jeans.  I said, I can’t do this.  I was thinking of Chris.
Mark said, We can’t stop now.
I didn’t say anything else.
When he drove into me, I stared up at the slanted ceiling.  Its skewed angle reminded me of the Batman television show.  The bad guys’ lairs were always cockeyed.  But no one came to rescue me, and I didn’t rescue myself.  Instead I counted dead flies trapped in the webs laced between the exposed beams.   
When I arrived home, my father called from his bed: Who is Mark?
The alarm that clamped down on my lungs was not unfamiliar. What? I stalled.
Chris was here looking for you, my father replied.
I went to bed.  There was nothing else to do then.
I virtually stalked Chris for years after I broke his heart.  I believed that I never stopped loving him. I wanted to apologize correctly and undo the pain I'd inflicted.   I wished I could explain, speak the words I didn't know, that I couldn't say: that something had happened.  I couldn't control it.  {But not a crime, anyway.} I made the choice to get on that motorcycle on that ancient afternoon. And then I didn't know what to do, and it seemed that ownership of my body had transferred to Mark.  How things fell like dominoes.  There's no blame or excuse.  There's only me standing in the slippery stream of my life, delightedly poking myself with my own transgressions.
I heard that Chris married the next girl he dated, the one who’d been waiting in the wings for him.  He joined the Coast Guard.  He did everything he said he would do.
I gave birth to a baby girl when I was twenty-three. I would sit in the rocking chair, nursing her, staring out the bay window, and my heart would insist that she should have been Chris's daughter.


  1. Love, Love, Love this! I don't know if everyone who reads this will feel as if you've written the words not only from your life but from theirs, but I do. Beautiful!

  2. It's hard to read because the pain -- that confusion over who betrayed whom -- is so much there and so deep. When Suzanne writes "written the words not only from your life but from theirs," I think I understand. There's something here about how we all disappoint ourselves. But, Felicity, the thing I want to say to you is that no one makes no mistakes. Especially teenagers.

  3. This is a very moving piece. I am touched deeply by it in so many ways. Thank you

  4. I certainly understand the inability to communicate and the "foreign language" everyone else seemed to be speaking. I too put myself into countless situations that left me in danger, rather than to stick with the one who had promised to keep me safe. Why? Because safety was a foreign concept, and danger was what I was accustomed to. I'm so sorry for the pain you experienced.

  5. I love this is moving and sad, but that is because it is so real. My two favorite lines are: "Instead I counted dead flies trapped in the webs laced between the exposed beams." and "I hid my fractures from him."

    Keep writing, you are an inspiration to those of us who remain blocked.