I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
October’s arrived, leaves accumulate on my balcony, papery as old snakeskins, and I’m inside, as ever, corresponding. I’ve answered 11 sweepstakes offers, enrolled in stewardess school off a matchbook cover, and sent for urgent information regarding high levels of carcinogens in Heinz Ketchup.
I wrote the gas company today informing them they mistakenly credited me 42 cents. I wrote a thank you card to my car mechanic for replacing my ignition switch, even though I forgot to mention it to him. “When I envision that first heavy snowstorm and me stuck in my car, futilely scraping my key to no avail, gratitude blows over me like fumes from the heating duct you also fixed. Yours ever, L.C.”
You would think I didn’t need any more paper in my life. Mondays and Wednesdays, my students’ compositions nearly split the seams of my book bag. I correct sentences like: “Heat elicited beads of sweat from my brow.” I mourn their discovery of the semi-colon. I write them long elaborate comments with a fountain pen, sent free with my new personalized stationery. I’m very popular with my students. In the evaluation forms, under the section Helpfulness of Written Comments they wrote last semester: “Professor Claire puts a lot of time into marking our papers. Sometimes they run longer than the paper itself.”
What have I become? I am ink, I am words, I am what’s left behind. I am static interference, noisome, overreaching, embarrassing as an ugly old cathedral. I hold you responsible. You have to answer me. I swing like a balance, waiting, an addict of response.
After a long day teaching, Minna Mouse and I haul ourselves over to Carson City, a country western bar where a silt-eyed, rubbery-hipped guitar player twangs out “Ramblin’ Man” at least seven times a night. Minna Mouse is my best friend. She is just under 5 feet, has voluminous black hair and a disgruntled voice. When she spins on her bar stool with her skinny legs stuck straight out, moaning in a low drawl, “I am a prisoner in this restless fire of a body of mine,” I want to hug her, carry her away in my arms.
But look at me. I’m not one to talk, either. Recently, I’ve developed this thing about pink, even in the fall, when it clashes with the leaves. Ever since I’ve gained weight, I’ve wanted to inhabit the color pink. Bubblegum pink, fuchsia, marbled magenta, rusty rose, I love all shades. Like a spy for some cheap designer, I whisk through the pre-teen department, stealing outfit ideas. I am the largest customer yet to buy a bright pink down jacket. When I wear it, I resemble the Michelin Man in neon.
But, the bar. We’re in it and Minna’s got this wild look in her face, like one eye’s come unmoored and is following the flashes of the strobe light. It has, sort of. Mouse has an astigmatism in her eye, so she can’t ever align her cigarette with a match flame.
“Today was a bitch,” she whines now, clambering onto a stool. “Of the 14 poems handed in today, three were about love and 11 about bag ladies.
“One guy set his on fire. He likened it to a ritual, to a Hindu widow throwing herself on the funeral pyre. I told him he might consider a more restrained use of sacrifice.”
“And what did he say to that?”
“He laughed and said it’s not a sacrifice at all.” She grimaces. “God, I wanted to belt him, but like everyone else in the room, in this universe, he was bigger than me.”
Mouse takes a sip of her new beer, leaving a foamy Colonel Sanders moustache above her lip. I adore her now. “For the second time this month,” she goes on, “I also deposited my mail with my overdue books in the library slot.” She grins, and the foam slides sideways, dripping off her jaw.
“You should respect your mail,” I tell her. “It’s your link to mankind.”
“You should burn yours,” she replies. “Like a Hindu widow.”
We are both silent and glum. Mouse doesn’t understand my thing about mail. She thinks it has to do with my boyfriend Victor, whose postcards and letters I have yet to answer. I tell her that’s too obvious, that someone with an advanced degree in literature knows better than to foist a bad central metaphor on her own love life. Besides, she has her own obsessive evasion: though she steadfastly denies still being stuck on her ex-boyfriend Bill, she monitors his comings and goings with alarming attentiveness. For the past several months, I have been conducting an Anti-Bill campaign, in hopes I might pry her from the self-defeated peephole she crouches behind. It appears to be a losing battle.
“I saw Bill today,” I tell her now. “With studette number four. This one has crooked teeth but drop dead legs.”
Mouse grimaces. “Do you think he might marry her?”
“Somehow I don’t think that’s the first thing on his mind.”
“Oh, but it is. When we broke up, Bill told me he needed to find someone to marry, only I wasn’t it. He was afraid all our kids would have my voice and he’d turn criminally insane.”
Now I cannot help but hug her. “Poor Mouse,” I blubber into her hair. “Poor Mini Minna Mouse.” In the bar mirror, I can see us; I look and feel like a huge bottle of Pepto Bismol tipped over, a gummy hell-ball of affection, while Minna’s fingers poke and claw their way to air. “Jesus Christ, Lee, cut it out. You’re a little suffocating sometimes.”
Then she looks at my face.
“I said only sometimes,” she adds, and winks.
My boyfriend Victor’s handwriting is small, neatly inscribed, as if a tight-fisted child wrote it. He’s actually a little short, and since he’s from the Philippines, he’s got a body made of two different gene swatches: the barrel chest of a Spanish conquistador and thin, delicate legs. His skin looks as if he dines exclusively on polyunsaturated oils.
His letters never say anything simple like, “I miss you.” Or “You wouldn’t believe it, but this crazy 14th-century Madonna looks just like you.” That’s because Victor is an academic star, one of those who as a rule, doesn’t write corny letters or worry about acne. In Spain, Victor is busy poring over Church records on the Philippines; he’s got some theory worked out about approaching colonial history, something too complex and French for me to understand. There can be no authoritative text, no closure to the tableaux of cultural self-determination, he writes. Identity is a malapropism. I find Victor’s language strange, impenetrable, like teething on metal pipes.
Victor always wanted to talk in bed. Talking is as exciting to him as sticking his tongue inside my mouth, maybe more so. He can get aroused reading psychoanalytic theory, and sensuously hisses the word “displacement” like others use the word “suck.” Usually, after we make love, he rides smoothly into conversation, while I lie on the bed like a ripped open box of chocolates, all squashed inside their wrappers, insecure about what to say. I want to say dumb words like, “that was nice,” or “maybe next time not so fast,” but they seem too ordinary, too women’s magazinish.
“Lee,” he often complains. “You are a slave to contemporary culture.” And, as if that weren’t enough, he turns his analytic screws on Carson City. “You want to be seduced by those cowboys,” he accuses. “You’d like to be symbolically conquered by a Marlboro ad.”
“The beer is cheap,” I grumble back.
Today I ran into Victor’s advisor at a faculty party. The Iced Princess, I call her. The Iced Princess has brittle blue eyes, sensible Bass shoes and a steel-trap mind. She, like Victor, can positively come over ideas. She used to direct the composition course I teach now, and over wedges of rubbery brie and Triscuits, recalled with excitement one of her student’s brilliant papers. “It was the dream excursus,” she related, a flush spreading over her delicate hairline of a nose. “This student attained uroboric apotheosis. She dreamed she’d stuck her head up her own anus. Isn’t that incredible?”
“Amazing,” I replied, my brie turned to rubber cement in my larynx.
Sometimes I suspect that Victor always wanted to sleep with the Iced Princess, and to make myself miserable, I picture Victor and her in bed together, his greasy face pressed up against her hard, chilly breasts. I can hear and see them before, during, and after their lovemaking: the noiseless, intuitive slide of their bodies, coded phrases passing between them, like dolphins signalling underwater.
Mouse has a theory: there are two types of male species in the world: Guys and Goons. Guys sleep with you, Goons take out the garbage. Mademoiselle did a feature on this in their April issue, only they used much more pedestrian terms: Boyfriends and Husbands.
On top of Sunday night’s composition stack sits Lloyd Farber’s paper. I read his title: “The Dream I Never Had or Couldn’t Possibly Have Had,” and a dull pain hits me between the eyes. I know I will hate this. I know, too, that every sentence will begin with “I,” and that Lloyd will be stamped solidly into the block of each paragraph like a deep, heavy-footed snowshoe print. Lloyd can’t help himself—he’s a Guy if there ever was one.
Well, Lloyd isn’t someone to sleep with—more he’s a force I must contend with each week in Composition 101. Big-boned, tousled hair the color of swamp grass, he harkens from North Dakota and comes clomping into my classroom to challenge me about everything. And I mean everything. “I disagree,” he’ll say point blank to whatever I say.
Now I am a big woman. I love the word “largess,” and believe wearing pink enhances my silhouette. But with this Lloyd character, I might be nothing, I sense myself retract into a hard cylinder of words. Last Monday it was about none other than the ubiquitous dream assignment—transcribing an important dream in vivid terms. Lloyd objected to the assignment, telling me he never has dreams. “Everyone dreams,” I snapped at him. “You’re just repressing the memory.”
“How do you know?” he challenged.
“Look, for the sake of the assignment, let’s just assume you have dreams like everyone else.”
“Whoa, wait a minute,” he laughed. “It seems to me the burden of proof is on you. Proving I do dream, not that I can’t remember a dream.”
“Lloyd, I can’t prove anything about your unconscious.”
We stared at each other.
“Furthermore,” he went on, “you haven’t even proved that the unconscious does exist.”
“Freud took care of that,” I snapped, and immediately felt stupid.
“Wasn’t he a misogynist?”
Lloyd shook his head, back and forth, his long bangs tossing across his forehead. His complexion is clear as stream water, his eyes pebble brown. Dumb dopey teacher his face seemed to say. Harebrain teacher puffed up with stylish jargon, like high-fat filler, starchy calories.
Monday’s note in my box is a brusquely-worded, early-in-the-week threat. “You must hand in your first draft of Chapter One by October 15. Your fellowship is up for renewal.”
I admire the brevity of Bates’s writing, the unspoken relationship between two short sentences. The implication is that only if I hand in my chapter will my fellowship be renewed. Given the absence of a connecting preposition, however, they could be seen as two entirely unrelated sentences. My chapter is due. And my fellowship is up for renewal. No connection, no conjecture there.
Maybe that’s why I read my magazines: Vogue, Glamour, Cosmopolitan. It’s like dipping yourself in a bubble bath of aphorisms. I’ve never seen such great writing. Take this: “It starts with a cozy classic cardigan (solo!), ends on a thigh note with an unmistakably sheer skirt, both in a punchy purplish-blue hue.”
“Breathtaking brights!” I recall from July’s Mademoiselle, when I call Mouse up to tell her about Bates’s note, “zingy clingy high-voltage summer sizzlers!”
“You need a break,” Mouse replies. “A long good soak in forgetfulness.”
She arrives at my apartment 45 minutes later, holding up two bottles of Chianti by their necks, like freshly slaughtered birds. “Drink,” she orders. “Speak your mind, your heart.”
All of which I do, unfortunately, glass after glass, sentence after sentence. Mouse should know better, I don’t need an invitation in self-indulgence. I lie sprawled on my couch, babbling inanities. “Control,” I gasp, “I am losing control.”
“You never had it to lose,” Mouse observes.
I try and resettle myself on the lumpy cushions, but my elbow slides sideways, and suddenly I’m swung over the side of the couch, gagging for air. The ceiling—no, the rug—is spinning. The border of the rug, dozens of roses, are spiraling down what looks like a toilet bowl. “Oh God,” I groan, and Mouse leaps up from her chair, running to the kitchen.
“Let it all come out!” She pushes the rubber rim of my kitchen garbage can under my nose. Sitting on top of the heap is half an avocado, brown in the center. The stench hits my nostrils. Then I let go.
After, as Mouse is dabbing my forehead with a wet towel, I tell her I’m mad.
“I’m sorry,” she says. “I didn’t mean for you to get sick.”
“Not at you,” I explain. “At Victor, at Bates, even that asshole kid Lloyd. For making me feel stupid all the time.”
“How do they make you feel stupid?”
“I don’t know exactly. It’s like being in a foreign language class and making a fool of yourself even though you’re fluent. No, it’s like feeling like a tourist in your own city just because you forget how much the bus fare is, everyone staring and gaping at you and thinking: “Isn’t she obvious.” I take a breath. “I am not any of those things.”
Mouse looks at me a moment, then takes the cloth away. The air brushes coolly across my brow. “Maybe you should tell him,” she says.
“You’re absolutely right,” I say back.
But she is gone from the room before I can ask her who she means.
Lloyd comes to my office hours that Wednesday because I ordered him to. Now, when I think about it, that was a dumb thing to do, as I’m just setting myself up for disaster. Rule number one about Guys: They love to make you mad. Rule number two: They love when you pull them aside to say you’re mad. It’s like giving them a discount on tormenting you.
I’m not sitting down when he settles into a chair, but perch with my hips half on, half off the edge of the desk. Many times, I’ve had Bates do this Leaning Tower of Pisa routine on me, so he manages to convey a sharp sense of imminent danger. Since I don’t exactly fit on the narrow point of the desk, the only thing I convey is instability.
“You all right there?” Lloyd asks, shrinking a little in his chair.
“I’m fine.” But when I twist around to search for his paper in my stack, a pile of mail order catalogues goes diving to the floor, stuck under the heel of his left Frye boot.
“I wanted to discuss your work, your performance in class,” I say.
A thin smile cuts his lips.
“It seems to me that we often disagree, and it’s not that there shouldn’t be disagreement of course, this is a discussion seminar after all …” Why is this so hard?
“Tell me, are you so contrary in your other classes? Do you ask questions, frequently challenge your professor?”
Lloyd shifts in his seat, scraping his boots on the catalogue. “Not much,” he says. “It doesn’t really occur to me.”
“And are those other professors men by any chance?”
Lloyd’s head bounces up, then he glances away, frowning. I can tell I’m walking a very fine line here; the desk corner is hardly able to support me now. Slowly, he turns his eyes back to me. I am astonished by their clearness.
“They’re all men, yeah,” he answers. “But you haven’t proved anything.”
“Now that’s exactly my point. Why is it always a question of proof? What makes my class different that you can’t accept …” I am about to say “me,” then quickly put in—“what I have to teach?”
Lloyd shrugs, slumping down further in his chair. He’s adopted a new stance: a juvenile delinquent posture, an I’m-Not-Smart-Enough-For-This-Heavy-Talk-Shit. Guys often do this. Goons eagerly accept the invitation to discuss things, then talk your ear off.
“I don’t even mind disrespect, but disrespect for it’s own sake, or just because I’m a woman—”
Then I halt. Lloyd has shot up again in his chair. It’s over, I see, I’ve gone too far, exposed myself. Goddamn you Claire, I think, can’t you ever hold back? Lloyd is giving me a quick once over from the bottom up, taking in the nude pink stockings, my new pink jumper, my magenta print scarf. The surface of his pupils are clear as a river, and when he stands, I can see myself inside them, bobbing like an old rubber handball that refuses to sink. Lloyd hands me my mail order cataogue.
“Sorry,” he says. “I gotta mosey or I’ll be late for class.”
“Yeah,” I sigh. “I gotta mosey too.”
Mouse and I draw up a list. What I could do instead of writing my dissertation, based on my current interests.
Start a chain letter.
Marry a cowboy.
Drink a bottle of Hairnet then ring up four thousand dollars in long distance calls.
Call in a bomb threat to the English Department.
Throw away all my mail.
This last one Mouse puts in, despite my loud protests. She’s trying to turn the mood serious. “This list is supposed to be funny!” I cry.
“So was your mail thing. At first.” Her arm sweeps over the living room. “But take a look, Lee. It’s starting to turn my stomach.”
What she means is the paper and cartons and wads of plastic wrap strewn all over the apartment, the unspooled tape and Styrofoam chips scattered across the floor like kitty litter. “I’m not even going mention your clothes. But it’s got to stop.”
“What?” I find myself yelling. “What’s got to stop?” Tears well up in my eyes. “How can I stop something that can’t be stopped? Mail? I have news for you Mouse, that arrives at your home no matter what you do or say.”
“It’s a matter of degree,” she says quietly.
“What degree? What fucking degree is that? You mean the degree I’ll never get around to finishing? Is that it?”
“You’re moral and dull.”
Suddenly, Mouse gets up from the couch and swerves into the kitchen. “You keep abusing me,” she says. “I’m going to practice lighting cigarettes.” Watching her flail around in search of matches, it hurts me to see the memory of Bill crushing her even smaller than she is. She returns a moment later with her box of cigarettes and several matchbooks.
We sit without talking, me listening glumly to the snap of match heads, watching her push her chin and cigarette into the lit match she clutches with both hands. She keeps missing by several inches, and tosses the used-up matches onto the floor. I remember how when she was still going out with Bill, he’d roll his eyes with impatience at having to always light her cigarettes for her. By the end of their relationship, he’d literally make a face every time she opened her mouth. When they broke up, Mouse was a mess. “What’s wrong with me?” she’d sobbed on this very same couch. “Why am I so unlovable?”
Now, watching her push her face again and again towards the small, flickering flame, I get really mad. I can’t stand to see her make an idiot of herself over something she simply can’t do, something she can’t be, and knock the cigarette out of her hand. “I almost got it that time!” she shouts.
“You did not!” I shout back. “And you won’t get Bill back by changing yourself anyway!”
We both stare at each other. Her hand trembles and she begins to cry. “You’re right,” she sobs. “Who gave you a right to be so right?”
We sit in raw, comfortless silence a while. Mouse continues to light matches, tossing them defeatedly on the floor. I try to think of ways to make her stop, to make me stop. After a while, I look down at my feet, where a trail of smoke is twisting up from a Hawaiian Holidays envelope. A flame licks at the greenish lettering which says, Open Me Before it’s Too Late. “Put it out,” Mouse whines.
She, like me, is paralyzed, entranced. Flames are moving sideways now, the envelope curling inward like a fist. We watch fascinated, as they catch on tissue paper, then burst into a shower of ashes, the sweet musky scent of smoke filling our lungs, widening our hearts. The next thing I know, Mouse is piling up mail debris in her arms, and deposits it onto my balcony. Soon we’ve got a pretty good pile. Mouse does the honors, and we watch with delight as the packing tape ribbons wriggle into the air, Styrofoam melting into tiny jeweled beads. It is glorious.
Mouse and I pour some more wine into our glasses, put our arms around one another and sing. We sing the Philippine National Anthem, even though we don’t know it. We chorus “Home on the Range” and “Ramblin’ Man.” Passersby glance up at us in horror. We do a dance in response, thrusting out our hips and breasts, wriggling our bodies in a wild, snake-like motion.
“To autumn,” Mouse says, holding up her glass. “To seasonal death and desire. Or maybe the death of desire.”
“To loss,” I put in. “To zumpy frumpy shades of fall.” Then I also drink.
When the phone rings, I don’t want to answer it, but I know it’s Victor; we’re also supposed to be having a We-Still-Love-You-Cory-Party, to celebrate the failure of the fifth coup attempt in the Philippines. Victor organized this by mail. He’s throwing a party in Madrid at the exact same time and is calling to confirm; we’re hoping to generate parallel lines of good karma.
“Happy Cory Day,” he says now. “How are you?”
“Busy,” I tell him.
“Are you celebrating?”
“Yes.” I don’t tell him what about.
Our conversation can’t seem to get going; at first I think it has something to do with the long distance delay, then I realize it’s him, taking long pauses after each sentence. I take a deep breath and venture to ask, “Do you miss me?”
“Miss you?” he repeats, as if this were a quaint, antique phrase.
“It’s not as if you say so in your letters.”
Another pause, too long. “What the hell is it?” I complain.
“Well, I do have some interesting news.”
For a moment, I panic, thinking he’s heard all about me, how I’m flunking out of school. “Shoot.”
“I got a new fellowship.”
“Which means I’m staying in Spain for another year. Maybe longer.”
The two sentences clunk inside my head like pipes banging underwater, and all I can think is, You lack a connecting preposition, you’ve left conjecture up to me. Then, all of a sudden, I am yelling into the phone. “Dweeb!” I shout. “Pinhead!”
But the words keep clattering out of my mouth, silly as gum balls. “Lame. Nerd. Knothead!” I yell.
“Lee, is there something wrong with our connection? What are you talking about?”
“Get a dictionary,” I tell him. “Buy a magazine. Learn to be nice!” Then I hang up the phone.
“Did you break up with Victor?” Mouse asks me, having heard all the racket inside.
I consider for a moment. “It was time, don’t you think?”
“Overdue,” she agrees.
Now I start to cry. Mouse joins in to keep me company and we suffer noisily, deliciously. Then I throw more paper into the pile as the fire kicks up high and furious under a wise, twilit sky.
Marina Budhos first novel, House of Waiting, is forthcoming next spring from Global City Press. Her fiction and nonfiction has appeared in Ploughshares, The Kenyon Review, The Nation, and elsewhere. She was a Fulbright Scholar in India in 1992–93 and is currently finishing her second novel.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee