He ran up from behind and threw a hug around her legs as she heated a pot of water for tea. I think that’s how it happened.
Kirin arrives for his visit with gauze, ointment and medical tape to hold the dressing in place, detailed instructions.
“Grandma says you’ll have to change my bandage.”
They send him with scissors. I do not have any, but I resent this gesture. Because I should have lots of things and don’t.
“Does it hurt?”
“You want cereal?”
It is Saturday. He watches cartoons while I try to concentrate on getting it together so we can go do something.
I really don’t remember what was so important that we couldn’t just leave. Everything was crucial back then. Making lists and arranging piles of stuff, folding and tearing up pieces of paper. Moving the bed from one side of the room to the other. Counting pills and losing count, having to start all over from somewhere in the middle.
We ride the bus to Toys-R-Us. We buy an action figure there and two big bottles of wine at the liquor store. He is hungry. We pass three fast food places until we get to the pizzeria that sells beer. There’s a black and white movie playing on a small TV on top of the fridge where they keep the sodas. Kirin only pays attention to the commercials because they are in color. When he’s done eating, we go back home.
It takes me all day to even look at the wound, a deep and throbbing third degree burn that spreads across the width of the child’s upper arm. My guilt catches in my throat as I pull the bloody cotton from his skin. I am confused by what I see. The whole area looks like uncooked meat.
Kirin holds his breath. His eyes are squeezed shut, and when he opens them, he asks, “You know what you’re doing, right?”
I cannot help but feel relieved that I was not to blame for what happened.
But aren’t I? After all, a little boy should be with his mother.
I was the one who wanted the second dog, a sibling for the first. At least, that’s the angle with which I approached my husband – the importance of family.
“She looks so lonely,” I said to Dave.
“But she’s not,” he replied.
And as much as they love her, the kids weren’t all that anxious to add even more doody to the piles of doody they’re already picking up. Sure, it’s a funny word, but let’s be honest. Doody is sobering.
“Mom, things are fine just the way they are.” Desmond was particularly insistent. “What’s gonna happen when we leave for college? Two dogs will be more than you can handle.”
“Son, college is like five years away.”
“The time goes fast, though. I’ll be gone before you know it.”
I read somewhere that animals cannot embrace new information until the specifics are physically introduced into their lives. They’re not equipped to appreciate changes to their environment before said environment is actually changed.
For example, I told Zerega that Jesco was coming.
“Soon, you will have a baby brother. And he will be your favorite friend.”
As I spoke, she listened intently for key words, like “cookie” and “supper.”
Some nights before I passed out, I tried adding up how many guys I’d slept with. I didn’t mind losing count. I liked the idea of being “experienced.” But looking back on things, I don’t think that’s how I came across. It’s pretty safe to say – availability was the main message I projected to any young man who stumbled drunkenly onto my path.
I preferred guys who drank heavily. It was familiar. That’s how I did things. With a beer in both hands, I felt much more confident and qualified to even be considered fuckable. Booze got my foot in the door and encouraged it up the pant leg of whoever seemed interested in helping me not feel so inadequate.
I brought sketchy behavior to each and every intimate encounter I was involved in. I was manipulative. I oversold myself. Plus, there was always the insecurity I felt about my body. Sleeping with me was a complicated transaction that so many boys came to regret. There were so many boys.
And as for the speed, that shit kept me on the clock for longer periods of time. I covered more territory, looking for that special anyone who was interested in my particular brand of entertainment. Which was… whatever.
Hey, you. I have something you might like.
I suppose I thought I knew what an orgasm was. I could have sworn I’d been having them all along. Sex was fun. It was a thrill to take my clothes off and be with another person in such a unique way. I longed for immediate closeness. I suppose that was my goal. If I could ever see clear enough to have a goal, which I didn’t. Nor did I realize that physically, there was more. An extra prize at the end.
Until the orgasms started happening – quite by accident, really. But seeing as though I was always high and half in the bag whenever I got laid, I never quite understood what I’d done to create that mysterious feeling. Or how to get it back again. Or if it even happened to begin with. I wasn’t sure. With so little information and an obvious lack of focus, the results were hit or miss.
Instead, I continued to put on quite a show. I made noises I thought were appropriate. I tried to lay still when we were done, so he could sleep. My partners praised themselves, and I thanked them. Even though it often felt like I was doing most of the work.
I just wanted him, whoever he was, to stay with me.
As soon as we are done here, I will want more. More than you can give me. You’ve made it clear – that I am not for you. Yet when I call and plead into the phone, “Please, be with me,” you come back, indifferent. I pretend not to notice.
And still, you take it all. I almost insist. I can’t help myself.
Please tell me what I can do to change your unchangeable mind. Because I want whatever this is and isn’t. The more I surrender, the less I have of what is left of me. But still, I say, “Thank you. That was good.” It’s a relief to unload this emptiness into your reluctant arms.
Let’s just go again. You can stay awhile and leave, like always. I will keep drinking after you’re gone. It will feel like starting over. I may even be awake until you return, stretching time to accommodate my unrest. I’m never quite sure what to do with myself when I’m alone.
I should be vigilant. What if your heart opens and you see worth in me? Then maybe, I can actually mean something to someone.
I will wait for you as long as I have to. I’ve put you in charge.
He sleeps right after sex. They all do, it seems. But not me. My head spins and swims, filled to the brim with all the wine in the house and drugs and questions that need answers.
Will what just happened change how he feels? Is he my boyfriend yet? I remember what he said. You don’t have to remind me. Don’t I get anything for giving it all away?
I wish I knew where this was going. It feels like nowhere. It’s confusing to be loved so hard, yet not at all.
My mother used to tell me, “You can’t love anyone until you love yourself.” What the fuck is that supposed to mean? I love myself just fine. She’s so stupid with her fucking riddles that make no sense. It’s not even her saying. It came from an Ann Landers’ column she tore out of the newspaper and taped to the fridge so I would see it. In a letter from this girl who kept sticking her fingers down her throat to make herself throw up.
His breathing is rhythmic and smooth, punctuated by little clicks that seem to come from the back of his throat and disturb only me. I want to climb inside his mouth and see what’s making all that noise behind his tongue.
I feel left out again. All the fucking and drinking is done for the night, and the lights are back on in my mind. I am sweaty and sad. I reach for parts of his body that will respond to my touch, to get away from my thinking.
“Cut it out,” he says. I wait a few minutes and try again. “This is why I hate staying here.”
I make my way to the bathroom in the dark. I sit on the toilet and squeeze my eyes shut. I am sore, and it hurts when I pee.
There are two hours left for sleeping until it’s time to go to work, but not if I don’t lay down. I stand in the shower and try to pretend I’ve just woken up from a wonderful dream. I dry myself off, crush a few pills and prepare a hefty morning line of speed.
Now, I am one hundred and twenty minutes early for the following day. It all depends on how you look at things. I try to stay positive however I can. I am resourceful like that.
I come back down the hallway and wake the baby up so I have some company in the kitchen. He likes to pick his own cereal so I put the boxes on a low shelf where he can reach them. It makes him feel like a big boy.
There’s this huge cardboard box filled with lightbulbs in the basement at my parents’ house, gathering dust amidst all the other miscellaneous piles of crap. Shelves crammed with broken appliances and dirty stuffed animals. Beach chairs and suitcases, even though we never went anywhere together. My father’s cop equipment, his riot gear and helmet. Plus all the groceries – big bags of cat food and jars of tomato sauce. Hundreds of cartons of cigarettes, bottles of booze and aspirin. Dad has his interests.
“Hey, garbage picker!” my mother yells from the top of the stairs in the kitchen. She flings a bag of 8-track tapes aimed at his head. “Get this shit out of here before I blow my stack.”
Mom sent me home one day with a Ziploc bag filled with lightbulbs, all different wattages. Each carefully wrapped in paper towels so they wouldn’t break. The first one I tried was burnt out, but the rest were okay. It took a while to use them all.
I have one lightbulb left. I carry it with me from room to room when it gets dark, twisting and untwisting the bulb from each socket as I go. I need light so I can see what I’m doing. Pouring wine in the kitchen, rinsing soapy clothes in the bathtub, chopping up pills and snorting them. I can get very busy folding tiny pieces of gum wrappers and magazine scraps to make a chain that will never become a rug. I also look for lightbulbs I know I don’t have.
I devote an old sock to this procedure. I wear it like a glove as I approach the hot glass, so I don’t burn my fingers. But I still get burnt. The more I drink, I forget.
I know I’m gonna need a new bulb soon. This one is starting to flicker hesitantly when I pull the string to turn it on. The thought crossed my mind last night that perhaps I should go upstairs and ask my neighbor if she could lend me one.. I even practiced my question out loud, just to see if I could say it without sounding too fucked up.
“Hey, Mindy. do you think I could borrow a lightbulb?”
I counted how many words I’d have to say to get my point across. Ten simple words. Eleven, if lightbulb is two words. But I’m pretty sure it’s one. I might have been able to do it, too, if Mindy got home from work earlier. But she stays at the hospital until 9:30, and by then, I am always half in the bag. I couldn’t ask.
I sit crouched on the living room rug when my lightbulb gasps its last weak breaths. I’m sifting through a pot filled with fish tank gravel that I’ve poured out onto a metal baking sheet. I am separating the granules by color. It’s a big, unnecessary job, but I am focused on the task at hand. I don’t even have fish anymore. Charlie poured a bottle of PineSol into the water and killed them all. But maybe I could get more. Someday.
When my wine cup is empty, I unfold my legs to stand. I stretch the right one first. And then, the left. Both are stiff. They ache from being locked in position for so long. I tell myself I am good at concentrating, and that’s why they hurt. I locate my sock and reach above my head to unscrew the bulb. I hear the quiet sizzle through the delicate glass membrane. That final “pop” startles me, and I jerk my hand away.
I stand there in the darkness, staring at what was the ceiling a minute ago. But now, who knows?
“Shit. Shit. Shit.”
Reaching for the wall in the foyer, I turn into the small kitchen and move toward the refrigerator. I pull the door handle open. And once again, there is light. And wine. I pour my drink to the top and lean against the counter. What to do… It’s after midnight – too late to start ringing doorbells for help.
I stare into the shelf where the thick beam of light originates. I can see the appliance bulb doing its job along the back wall of the fridge. Maybe I could just switch out the lightbulbs. What a brilliant idea! They look to be about the same size. And then, I can get back to my work. It’s worth a try.
Waving my arm into the air above where I think the outlet dangles, I locate the dead bulb and with two hands, carefully begin its removal. That’s when I hear the rusty, crunching sound. Like a confused animal, I position my face to receive the strange noise. It stops when I pause the unscrewing. And begins again when I continue with the bulb’s extraction. As I persist, the crunching is accompanied by a small explosion – tiny shards of glass plink off my forehead and cheeks. Some rest just inside my open mouth.
“What the fuck?”
My hand remains cupped and extended above my head, but I am no longer holding the precious bulb. That space is empty. I’m afraid to reach for the socket, for fear I will die by electric shock. Something terrible has happened, but I cannot explain it to myself. I step on fragments of unseen glass in my bare feet.
I creep along carefully into the kitchen and spit slivers of lightbulb into the sink. My guess is the bulb has somehow shattered. I rinse my mouth with some wine and knock back a few more pills from a little batch I have in my pajama pocket. I thought I was done with the speed until tomorrow, but this crisis has officially established the new length of my night.
I venture into the black to retrieve my gravel project. I carry the baking sheet back through the rooms and take a seat on the floor in front of the open refrigerator. I resume my sifting and sorting until the morning sunlight arrives, piercing its way through the dirty basement window. Finally, I can assess the situation.
It seems the lightbulb has indeed broken off inside its electrical base. I can see the delicate guts and wires protruding from the end of the suspended cord. I have no idea how to fix this. I will ask at my job when I get there. Plus, they’ll probably have lightbulbs in the storage closet or something.
Climbing into the bathtub to take a shower, I briefly consider that I might still be drunk from the night before. But as I scrub my hair and face, I decide I am more tired than wasted. I am in good enough shape. I will go to work, secure a lightbulb and bring it home. I feel optimistic.
I can’t believe there are no standard sized lightbulbs in this whole fucking place. It’s all recessed Iighting – big, round canisters that aren’t worth a shit to me. I’ve checked every office and bathroom. Not one goddamn desk lamp anywhere. And don’t even suggest I go buy a lightbulb. That’s not an option. I have no extra money. Plus, I still owe two girls here twenty dollars each, so I can’t tap anyone for a loan.
I’m just gonna have to try and find a lightbulb elsewhere. I’ll figure something out.
In the meanwhile, I explain my current quandary to several co-workers. I ask if they know how to remove the damaged lightbulb pieces without electrocuting myself. Evidently, it’s as easy as cutting a potato in half and jamming the open end into the broken works. But c’mon, if I can’t even secure a lightbulb, how the fuck am I supposed to get a potato? Really.
At lunchtime, I meet up with my dealer and collect a little dope on credit. Enough for tonight and tomorrow. The day after that, I get paid and will have extra money again. I can buy all the lightbulbs I need. Fuck, I don’t even want any lightbulbs, but I probably should get a couple, just to have.
It is freezing shit with light flurries at 5:30 when I leave my job. I will wait to buy wine from the liquor store near my house, so I don’t have that far to carry the big bottle. Even though I just bought from there last night, and I don’t want the guy who works behind the counter to think I have a problem.
Once in Queens, I purchase my alcohol with sixteen cents left over. The streets are slippery as I walk past several restaurants, the movie theater and a Rent-A-Center that never seems to have any customers. I continue half way down the avenue and double back, sweeping the display window for information to support an idea that’s just coming to me.
Appliances in the front area – TVs, stereos, washer/dryer combos. Sectional sofas, daybeds and coffee tables in the showroom. Dimly lit, but lit nonetheless by a forlorn collection of lamps that no one seems to care about. Except me. I care.
Here on the Island of Misfit Light Fixtures, there is much to choose from. A gigantic giraffe with a sateen shade protruding between its antlers, three monkey faces stacked like a totem pole, a mermaid with mean-spirited nipples. Sprawling, tri-headed contraptions that loom menacingly over recliners with cup holders.
There are two bundled figures scraping and salting the sidewalk outside the store.
“Hey, are you open?”
“Go in.” One of them gestures toward the door.
A buzzer rings as I step inside. An elderly woman sits with her legs crossed on a bar stool near some rugs suspended from the ceiling. She shouts into the telephone in an ancient language I do not recognize. I don’t know. Egyptian, maybe. It sounds like she is fighting with whoever is on the other end of the line. She does not acknowledge my presence, and I am relieved.
I move quietly into the back area and begin turning lamps on and off, testing each model. Most are duds. But the one I find resting inside a dusty porcelain bowl is a keeper. I unscrew the bulb from its chamber and slide it gingerly into my coat pocket. As I turn to make my exit, I notice some change on the ledge of a wall unit – three quarters and a dime – just sitting there, minding its own business. I take that, too.
They have lots of merchandise in this place. Not everything is ugly. I suppose I might be interested. It would be nice to have new things. Perhaps a bed for Kirin.
I found a twin mattress and box spring around the corner from my house. They’re in decent shape, no gross stains or anything. I bought Lion King sheets and a comforter, but it’s been weeks since he’s come to stay. Charlie is jealous and unpredictable. I am afraid to bring my boy around.
The old lady is making coffee for the shovelers. Perhaps they are her sons. She yells at them from the doorway with maternal familiarity.
“Do I need a credit card to buy something here?” I ask.
“No buy. Just rent.”
“Why? Don’t you have a credit card?”
“You got a bank account?”
“You’re a grown girl. You get a bank account,” she says. “Many good items here.”
Fuck this bitch. I thank her politely and leave.
The snow is really coming down now. It’s easier to walk in the middle of the street. I follow the tire tracks of passing cars and trucks. This blanket of white will seal me inside the basement for hours. I’ve got wine and my drugs, a lightbulb and now, enough money to buy a potato.