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Arrhythmia, revised

When I hear the word love, I remember that summer, mid-June, the week leading up to my thirteenth birthday. The vibrancy was dialed up just shy of too much, a rich and luxuriant sun and so much green, until all I could do was lie under the pecan tree in the yard and close my eyes and feel the heat and color baking into my skin. It was a touch I felt I’d take with me for months to come.

Under the pecan tree, I was far enough from my house that I couldn’t hear any yelling or the Billy Joel CDs my mother played in the kitchen when she was upset. There was just the brown thrashers singing, the distant hum of the neighbor’s lawn mower, and the subtle rustles of insects through the grass. I liked to imagine I could hear the creek, too, but I knew it was too far from the house for that.

If I concentrated just right, I could feel my heartbeat in my chest, the ba-dum, ba-dum, ba-dum, pause, DUM, ba-dum, ba-dum, ba-dum, pause that had kept me from doing sports or P.E. or even kicking around a soccer ball with the Nair kids who lived across the street. I had once read somewhere that if you crouch on your heels, you can feel your body rocking back and forth with the force of your heartbeat, back and forth. I read that you can’t keep yourself still, not quite, the heart muscle is so powerful. I wondered if this was true.

I told myself that this was not the season for falling out of love. I reminded myself that just last week, my father had kissed my mother on the cheek at the end of dinner and told her she should’ve been a chef, the split pea soup was so good. She’d smiled at him like everything between them had healed.

I thought, too, about my birthday party this Saturday. It was the one day of the year I was allowed to eat chocolate or sugar, aside from the little samples my father slipped me sometimes, and I couldn’t decide which flavor cake to ask my mother to make, caramel pecan or walnut fudge. I lay under the pecan tree, my mind metronoming back and forth, back and forth, until the shrill squeal of the screen door cut across the yard and I scrambled up, knowing my mother was already gathering her breath to call my name.

*

My mother was Episcopalian. My father was a Republican.

“Oh, he’s an Episcopalian, too,” my mother liked to tell me, “but that’s not his religion.” No, his religion was driving around the city with his political friends, sticking campaign posters into the grass on the side of the highway and wandering through neighborhoods miles from our house, stapling fliers to telephone poles and trees. He was much more likely to be reading a biography of George W. Bush than the Book of Common Prayer, more likely to be debating foreign aid than the nature of God. At church socials, he started every conversation by asking about the other person’s opinion on the war in the Middle East or the latest Supreme Court decision, while my mother stood stiffly several feet behind him, looking away in feigned distraction, as though she were listening to some other conversation, as though she didn’t know him.

That June, The Telegraph published an article called “Georgia Citizens Discuss Recent Tax Cuts,” which featured interviews with various local residents and political activists. They put my father’s picture in the corner of the article, a head shot of him wearing his favorite newsboy cap and smiling broadly at the camera. He was fiercely dedicated, the paper said. A true crusader. The day it was published, I took down the calendar in the middle of the bulletin board in my room and pinned the article up in its place. I taped a second copy to the front of my locker at school, so that everyone would know my dad wasn’t just anybody—he was the treasurer of the Georgia Republican Party, and I was his daughter.

That was also the summer he met Franco Molina, who had immigrated from Chile seven years ago and now owned a radio station downtown. The first time my father visited the station, he brought me with him.

As he and Mr. Molina sat talking at his wide mahogany desk, I tiptoed around the room, taking in the globe on a pedestal and the leather-bound volumes that lined the bookshelves before coming to a stop before the coatrack by the door. There was a dead animal hanging there. Its bushy, sand-colored tail looked just like my mother’s feather duster. I leaned closer, and its beady glass eyes stared darkly back at me. It seemed to be curling back its lip in the beginnings of a snarl. It had a row of tiny sharp teeth that I could easily imagine digging into the flesh of my palm. I stuck my hands safely in my pockets.

“He’s a handsome critter, isn’t he?” Mr. Molina called to me from his desk. I jumped.

“It’s a mink,” he went on, leaning back in his chair. “I skinned it for my wife for Christmas. Their fur is very valuable. You can feel it, if you want. See how soft it is.”

I don’t remember how soft its fur was. All I remember is the boniness of its small skull under my fingertips. All those little hollows and knobs. I wondered how Mr. Molina had killed it. I wondered why he’d left the head on, what sort of woman would want that mouth full of teeth dangling by her collarbone.

“Maddy,” my dad said then, “why don’t you wait outside while Mr. Molina and I talk shop,” and I went gladly, tugging the heavy wood door closed behind me.

Pretty soon, my father was visiting Mr. Molina at least once a week. So was I. When my mother was at work, I was with my father at the station. My mother’s policy was that I couldn’t stay home alone. No matter how many times I protested that I was responsible enough to handle it, that all my friends’ parents let them stay home alone, she refused to budge. “Daddy and I both work full-time,” she reminded me, stroking my hair, “and that’s a long time for you to be alone. I’d just hate for anything to happen to you, ladybug.”

By anything, I knew she meant anything medical. I knew she meant my heart, and I knew she was thinking of Joanna Beth Nair’s birthday party the spring before last. She was thinking of the end, when she’d come to pick me up and she and Mrs. Nair and I had all stood around in the kitchen, the adults talking and me waiting by my mother’s side, resting a hand on my jeans pocket where I could feel the bulge of the contraband Twizzlers I’d gotten from Joanna Beth. I occupied myself by pressing my fingers down just enough for me to hear the wrapper crinkling. I’d already chugged a full Solo cup of fruit punch, giddy because no one here cared that I was on my mother’s heart-healthy diet, and I was going to eat the Twizzlers later, one by one, as I hid under the pecan tree or in my room with my desk pushed against the door, which didn’t lock.

I was thinking about the Twizzlers, and Mrs. Nair was throwing her head back and guffawing, saying, “That reminds me of when we lived in Tennessee, when we were raising chickens—oh, it’s a hilarious story . . .” My body was tilting, back, back, until I was leaning on the kitchen table. The overhead lights were throbbing a wan yellow, the air stinking of musty carpet and corn chips and mayonnaise. My head lolled forward until I caught myself, focused my eyes on Mrs. Nair. Her hands fluttering, her voice braying. I concentrated on turning the noise into words. She was describing cutting a chicken’s head off. My eyes slipped off her to the kitchen cabinets behind her. I could see the scrawny body jerking, the spraying blood and the dirty feathers and the flash of sun and the smell of grass, and I thought I might be floating out of my body. My eyes dizzily tracked the ceiling fan. My skin was pulsing, a heat coiling in my gut, the air shimmering and  black fizzing around the blurred edges of everything and Mrs. Nair’s voice droning on and on and my heart’s heavy expanding whump-whump . . .

That was when I fainted and cracked my head on Mrs. Nair’s kitchen table, my mother told me later, on the drive to the doctor’s office. It had taken that for me to admit to her that I’d recognized the black fizzing and the lightheadedness, that it happened all the time when I stood up. That was all it had taken for her to decide I shouldn’t ever be left alone for long. Even now, I knew a single memory was stronger than any argument of mine.

*

I wasn’t sure what my father and Mr. Molina did behind the closed door of Mr. Molina’s office, other than that it was something political. The hardwood floors outside Mr. Molina’s door creaked no matter how carefully I stepped on them, so I couldn’t get close enough to eavesdrop. I hung out in the rest of the building instead, taking peppermints from the jar on the secretary’s desk and inspecting the watercolors framed on the walls before settling down on the bench in the hallway to read a book or play game after game of Snake on my Nokia.

We usually got to the station just after lunch. By the time we left, it was almost always dark outside. I knew that if I complained on the ride home that I had been terribly bored, or if I said it was unfair I didn’t get to do cool things with my summer like the Nair kids, who were at Disney World, it would probably be enough to guilt my father into buying pizza on the way home instead of reheating the leftover casserole my mother had left for us in the fridge. If I complained that I was sore from sitting on the bench for hours, he might even let me choose a DVD from Blockbuster for us to watch while we ate. I could pick out whatever I wanted, but it had to go back before my mother got home. I understood that the movies were a secret between us. My mother wouldn’t want me watching The Matrix or Men in Black and my father knew it.

*

The day before my birthday, Mr. Molina had my father and me over for dinner. He invited my mother, too, but she told my father she couldn’t because she had to cover her friend Maureen’s shift at the clinic. She told me, “I’m not going to set foot in that man’s house. He hits his wife, just like he hit the first two. He hit them so much they left him back in Chile and got full custody of the kids. I’m amazed he found a third woman willing to marry him. Wouldn’t have been me, no siree.”

When Mr. Molina answered the door, I peered up at him suspiciously from behind my father. I had never before met someone who had beaten his wife or had a divorce, let alone two. Now that I knew about it, it wasn’t so hard to imagine. He was broad-shouldered, a foot taller than my father, with meaty hands. Brutish. I thought that his gray eyes looked as unfeeling as those of the dead mink in his office.

Mrs. Molina No. 3 had made empanadas for dinner. As I ate, I snuck glances across the table at her, looking for bruises I didn’t find.

Mr. Molina had two kids, four-year-old Flora and five-year-old Leon, with Mrs. Molina No. 3. They were as American as their blonde, blue-eyed mother, but Mr. Molina had them speak in nothing but Spanish through the meal. Here and there I recognized a word, a si or nueve or día.

“We’re moving back to Chile in a year,” Mr. Molina explained to me, “so they need to be fluent.”

“Maddy’s taking Spanish at school,” my father put in.

“Oh, bien por ti!” Mr. Molina exclaimed, and tossed an orange my way. I fumbled to catch it. He grinned. “Know the word for that?”

“No. But,” I added in a rush, inexplicably eager not to let him down, “I can count to ten, and I know some colors. Rojo, verde, and negro. And I can talk about the weather.”

Mr. Molina nodded. “That’s a good start. And”—he pointed his bread roll at the orange in my hand—“that’s la naranja. Say it back to me.”

I did, and Mr. Molina clapped. “Bueno. See, now you know more Spanish than you did before you came here. You’re learning all the time, even when you’re not in school. And if you and your papa ever come visit us in Chile, you’ll learn even more. I’ll have you talking as good as my niños in no time.” He did that a lot, invite us to Chile. My father said he was just being nice, being hospitable, and not to get my hopes up about an exotic vacation.

As Mr. Molina went back to talking about radio station business with my father, I dug a fingernail into the rind of the orange and wondered if Mr. Molina really beat his wife. He was always nice enough to me; he talked like we were friends. His wife didn’t look like a battered woman. And how would my mother know a thing like that, anyway?

Afterwards, my father stopped the car at the head of the driveway. “I’ve got to go back to the station. Mr. Molina needs me to troubleshoot the main computer. Tell Mommy I’ll be home in just a little bit.”

“Okay, sure.” I clambered out, glad I didn’t have to go with him. I stood by the mailbox as his headlights washed over me and then away over the lawn. I waited until his red taillights winked out in the distance. Then I turned and headed up the gravel drive to the house. It was a humid night, a few stars out, and there was no sound but the crunch of my footsteps and the shrill singing of the crickets. The hedges around our yard were nearly tall enough now to screen the lights from the neighboring houses, so that I could imagine that I was alone out in the country, that our house was a wilderness outpost, rather than this American foursquare in boring suburbia. I walked slowly, thinking, La naranja is an orange, thinking that I was going to tell my mother this and she was going to be impressed.

The back door swung open before I even reached the porch, and my mother stepped out with her arms crossed over her nightgown. Her mouth was a thin line, her cheekbones and jaw drawn sharply in the kitchen lights, and as soon as I saw her, I stopped smiling.

“Where’s Daddy?” she demanded.

“He went back to the station. He had to fix some equipment.” I stopped in front of her, gripping the straps of my backpack and feeling like I’d done something wrong.

She glared past me into the darkness, as though my father were standing there behind me. “He didn’t walk you up to the house?”

“No,” I said.

A muscle in her jaw twitched.

I couldn’t bear it. “It’s okay! It’s fine. It’s not a long walk to the house, and there’s no one around anyway. I’m fine. Really.”

“It’s not safe for you to be out alone at night, ladybug,” she said as she stood aside to let me in the house. “Anything could happen, even in a nice neighborhood like ours. Daddy should’ve known it wasn’t safe.”

I stomped past her. “Mom, come on. Nothing happened.”

But, an hour later, I lay in bed, tracking the lazy whirl of the ceiling fan with my eyes and listening to her shouting at him in their bedroom, which was right above mine.

I tried to think of happy memories. Somewhere my parents had never been. I settled on Joanna Beth Nair and I sneaking down to the creek on rainy weekends, crouching on the sandy bank and crafting leaf-boats, then sending them sailing downstream. We could spend hours inventing stories about where they ended up—wrecked upon the rocks, or drowned on a waterfall, or drifting into a peaceful cove, or finding a secret castle on the far side of the lake.

Tonight, I tried, but I couldn’t float away. My father’s voice was low, indistinct, but my mother’s carried clear through the floor, saying he was irresponsible, saying he should’ve walked me to the house, saying Mr. Molina was a bad role model for me, saying she had a list a mile long of things that needed fixing around the house and why didn’t any of them ever get tended to, instead of Mr. Molina’s computers? Did he even remember it was his daughter’s birthday tomorrow? Why hadn’t he decorated the living room for the party yet? She’d made the cake; why hadn’t he blown up the balloons?

When I was little, I used to pass the time in church or waiting at the doctor’s office—appointments were a monthly occurrence—with hypothetical questions. I’d look at the chart of the digestive system pinned on the wall by the nurses station, or stare at the upturned face of Jesus on the cross behind the altar, and ask myself, would I rather fight zombies or pirates? If my house was burning down and I only had time to grab five things, what would they be? If I had to move out of the country, where would I want to live in instead? And then there was the hardest of all, the one I came back to whenever I ran out of questions: If my parents were dangling from a cliff and I could only save one of them, which one would I pick? Answering that was as impossible as comprehending infinity. Any big number I could think of, there was a bigger number. I could spend my whole life counting to higher and higher numbers and still never reach the highest one. There was no highest one. There was always a bigger number . . . Eventually my mind always stuttered like this, thoughts cycling back on themselves.

As my parents’ argument filtered through the ceiling, I thought about this again. I thought, too, about Mr. Molina’s ex-wives in Chile. How could someone pledge his love and life to a woman, then fly across the sea to a new country and never speak to her again? Did he ever miss either of his old loves? Did he ever turn to the newest Mrs. Molina and catch himself calling her the wrong name? And what about the other children, Flora and Leon’s step-siblings? Did they miss him, or had they put him out of their mind? I tried to imagine my father moving to Chile, leaving my mother and me behind and never so much as writing a letter to me for seven years. I didn’t think I would make it a week without writing to him. Every day I would sit at school wondering if, at that very moment, the mailman was putting my father’s long-awaited reply in our mailbox.

But why think about it? My father wouldn’t do something like that. He loved me too much.

Maybe Mr. Molina did beat his wife.

Upstairs, there was a thunk, like someone dropping a heavy book. I didn’t want to imagine what was going on to make that noise.

I wondered: Who did I need more, my mother or my father? Who did I love more?

 

*

 

My mother waited until right before the first guests arrived to spread the chilled ganache on the walnut fudge cake. I leaned my elbows on the counter, watching her, occasionally reaching forward to swipe my finger through the icing for a taste. She smacked my hand away with the spatula every time, fighting back a smile, and promised, “Patience, grasshopper. You can lick the bowl when I’m done.”

Behind her, I could see the balloons hanging from the chandelier over the kitchen table and strung up along the ceiling in the living room. They bobbed gently in the slightest breeze from a person walking by underneath them. I wondered when last night my father had put them up.

“Do you know why I’m only doing this now?” my mother said, and I looked back down at her hand twisting the spatula, smoothing the icing so it looked as perfect and uniform as the ones from the grocery store. “If you spread the icing on right after the cake comes out of the oven, then it’ll melt. Daddy makes that mistake every year when he bakes my birthday cake. He puts the icing on first thing, and it drizzles right off again.”

“But he means well,” I said.

“He does.” My mother sighed. “He always does.”

I tapped my fingernail against the side of the icing bowl. Clink, clink, clink. In my chest, I could feel my heart galloping and faltering, galloping and faltering. “Are you and Dad going to get a divorce?” I almost said, but then I thought how my mother’s hand would freeze, how she would look at me, as shocked as if I’d said shit or bastard. “Are you and Dad okay?” came out instead.

My mother kept her eyes on the cake, swirling the last dollop of ganache into the top layer. “We’re okay, ladybug,” she said at last. “We worked some things out last night. We’re both going to do better.”

I nodded. Reached again for the icing. This time, she didn’t stop me, and I scooped a generous glob onto my finger. “Do you mean it?” I asked, looking carefully at her face.

Her mouth opened, closed. She smiled, sort of helplessly.

The doorbell rang.

My mother’s shoulders sagged. “Sounds like your friends are here. You better answer it.”

Sucking the ganache from my finger, I went.

 

*

 

It stormed through the night and into my dreams, where the creek down behind the house rose and rose and swallowed the woods and the road and the pecan tree and the mailbox inch by inch. In the dream, I sat tied to my desk chair. I had to watch the creek become a lake and then a sea, a wall of water that was going to slam into the house like a train, roaring through windows and doors and smashing furniture, roaring with my heartbeat in my ears, and there would be nothing left of the house but splinters. For hours, I sat, waiting, waiting, waiting, knowing I was going to drown and feeling my heart struggling for rhythm, swollen and sluggish in my chest.

I woke to a gentle rush of rain and lay spread-eagled on my bed, drifting in the sound of it. Eyes closed, I catalogued this calm reality, the quiet tap-tap-tap of the gutter dripping and the steady tick-tick-tick of the clock on my dresser and the cool air on my legs, until I realized I was listening to my parents’ muffled conversation, too, spilling out of the laundry room across the hall. Mom snapping, “Listen, buddy, you’ve got to figure out your priorities. You can’t just go off buying computers off Molina whenever you feel like it—”

I rose. Half-stumbled with my foot catching in the sheets.

“Just one computer, and it was at a discount. Franco gave it to me practically for free . . .”

Pulled on the first pair of shoes I could find.

“No, not ‘practically for free,’ don’t even—Jim, I saw the bank statement. And what, you didn’t bother to tell me until now? Why is that? Could it possibly be because you knew I’d say to wait, because you knew this is when all the insurance bills are due, and the payment on the house—”

I eased open the door.

Dad was saying, in a kind of forced calm, “How many times do I have to apologize to you before you’ll listen to me, Beth? How many times?” but I was already past, tiptoeing to the end of the hall.

Quietly, I felt my way down the darkened basement stairs and outside.

At the bottom of the hill, the creek was churning like in my dream. The water, reddish brown and opaque, had almost reached the embankment, but the rain was slowing now, gentling, and I didn’t think it was going to flood. I turned left and started walking. The hems of my PJ pants dragged in the mud, snagged on the thorns and twigs that scratched my ankles. I kept going. Slid a little on the slick of wet leaves and mud but caught myself in time. Kept going, kept going, until the trees gave out and the mangle of their roots fell away to the bank of the lake. There was a trail here. Maybe I would follow it, see what was on the far side.

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