Chapter I: Green-eyed beans
This question of answering when and where an event took place becomes more complicated, according to the theory of special relativity, because rods can change their lengths, and clocks change their rhythms, depending on the speed at which they operate when they are in motion. Therefore, we must answer the questions when and where an event took place in terms of a definitely moving system, or in terms of the relationships between two moving systems.from World Book Encyclopedia entry for ‘Theory of Relativity’
The groom from the campus riding stable sends red roses to my mother. I never see the little gift-cards but there must be some, somewhere. According to stubborn faith in things unseen, the cards are hidden in a kitchen cupboard behind all her baking ingredients, or upstairs among her mysterious bottles and jars.
I don’t snoop through my mother’s things anymore. After a certain point with people the case is simply closed and sealed with wax, you stop trying to figure them out. You just let them be there in the room like a lamp that’s turned on, or one that’s turned off.
Just now I see her. She is a cool queen sitting out there on the lawn, a chess piece near the sun-bleached yellow circle where the plastic turtle-pool used to be. Not a pool for turtles, but a pool of molded plastic in the shape of a turtle, with a small slide extending down the turtle’s neck and into its shell. The shell of the turtle was concave, inverted and green like a coloured contact lens.
The other day, one of the daughters of the cedar-hair woman slid down the slide and broke the turtle’s neck. A bit of her leg flesh got caught in the snapping crevice, bruising her badly. How she screamed and screamed. The pool was taken away the same day, by the groom from the riding stable, who was always cheerful about doing things in the yard next to my mother’s.
Just now she is snapping string beans. When I watch her through the kitchen curtains, the flowers on the table blur and bleed. Roses and baby’s breath, corpuscles inside her house. If I focus instead on the dozen red roses right here on the table, then it is my mother, and the lawn, and the pile of beans she’s snapping, which mesh together like cells, sunlit yellow-green. The cellulose fibres of a plant.
Baby’s breath. The smell of it, recalling nausea. Two pudgy lobes hang on either side of Rose’s face, those are her cheeks, with such tiny red lips between. A cyclopean nipple. A cupid’s bow, eructing. Rose is my little girl. I love her best when four fingers and her thumb are curled boneless about a strand of my hair, or held fast to one of my own fingers, which unlike hers are bony and yellow. Rose is less than one. I have loved her best when her pastry-cheeks, her tiny restless lips are fastened to my breast, suspending for a moment the crisis of being, or provoking it. But now I’ve been prescribed sleeping pills, so Rose and I will have to stop this communion. From now on she’ll be fed on formulas from bottles which have to be sterilized. At times I hate the weight of her.
“You’re hungry.” My mother says this. I step over the threshold of sliding glass doors onto the small concrete patio, hot to my feet, then cool onto the lawn, and this is the first thing she says to me. She seems to say it every time she sees me looking at the baby, whose crib has been set out here on the patio like a cake, with a gauzy yellow cake-cover to keep mosquitoes away from her blood. Sweetly, it seduces them.
I am both sulky and hungry today, apparently, yet I step out and turn a cartwheel on the grass, not gracefully. But for an instant, my hands are feathered green, and my legs are spread wide open to the sky. I feel the oily sun-heat slide between them, and think of mermaids in green bathing caps with sequins. Turning and turning, their feet turning to fins.
“I’m not hungry at all,” I say to my mother as I slouch down like a walrus beside the growing mound of string beans. “I ate all those oysters,” I tell her. “I ate the whole tin.”
In fact, I’d even licked out the tin, unable to shake off the image of a feverish cat cutting her tongue on a jagged lid, licking oyster-juices from a can. God knows where these images come from. The desire for symmetry perhaps, or resolution, the probable resolution of jagged metal against skin. Sometimes your mind just has to make the jump, when all the circumstantial evidence is right there in front of you. In my mind, any television army-doctor, hurrying toward a helicopter with supplies, will always be decapitated by the spinning blades, just as my mother will always lose her fingers in the soup she purées in the blender, in my mind. It seems inevitable, aesthetically. I will always cut my legs in the shower, even if the razor sits untouched on the edge of the bathtub. The image seems to leap up at its own possibility.
Looking at a surface of skin inevitably recalls the fluids coursing beneath it. It is incredible to me that people manage to remain discrete and self-contained at all, without somehow rupturing and flowing together, like a broken yolk or the piebald Fraser. Some people are tougher than butternuts to crack, and are in no danger of this loss of identity. My mother would be one of these people. Some people carry their own containers, like the one I used to carry my retainer around in. They do not open unless pried.
But I do remember the silky rush of water down my legs, in a warm wash, and wondering what its ingredients were. Whether silvery particles of memory could be lost along with it, like the bath water with the baby. This is the only explanation which makes any sense to me right now. Sometimes when I look at Rose, I find myself believing that she must have absorbed in utero whatever it is I can’t remember. As though amnesia were a liquid environment from which other things were born.
Salmon Court. This is the name of the cluster of student housing units where Rose and I live with my mother, and sometimes Dr. Spector, when he is not home with his wife. The housing-units are arranged in a big circle, with a breech for cars to drive in and park in the centre, marbles in a chalk circle. All the front doors of the cluster open onto the parking lot and courtyard, at the centre of which is a concrete-bordered island with a single tree. It is a large oak tree. These housing units were built in 1967, but the tree must have already been there, judging from its magnitude. Which is strange, to build a circular cluster of housing units around a single tree, as though it were the tree’s idea. I imagine the roots of it underground, pale as larvae fingering the soil, spreading out their shadow-branches like a phreatic brain.
Around the outer circumference of Salmon Court, all the patios glint their sliding-glass doors like the grooves round the edge of a quarter. On the day-side of the circle, where my mother sits snapping string beans, the lawn slopes down to the highway which later runs along the coast. On the night side, which seldom gets much light, there’s a deep ravine. I imagine that from the air, Salmon Court must look like a big green eyeball. The highway is a high concrete brow, lashed with the mindless ocean beyond, and deep the crease beneath it is the ravine. A single tree is growing out of its pupil. Since I’ve been forbidden to stimulate my brain with books, for the time being, I amuse myself with this sort of aerial nonsense. It’s really not that hard to imagine seeing things from above.
Out here on the lawn is a metal swing-set, and one of those carousels you sit on while someone pulls you round and round until you’re sick. It’s a cheap one and it wobbles. The campus housing unit was built in for married students with children, which theoretically would be my mother and I, respectively, though I’m not particularly a child and she doesn’t particularly act like she’s married. At her most sentimental, she reminds me You know you’ll always be my little girl. But it is only in this sense that I am one, and it’s only been since the birth of Rose that I ever remember hearing her say it. Babies make people soft in the head.
But I outgrew swing-sets and carousels at least ten years ago, and Rose won’t be old enough to play on them for another few years at least. So my daughter and I don’t really fit in here. The other mothers who live in the housing unit have children who are two or five, or seven or ten. Some people in the unit seem to assume that Rose is my mother’s daughter, because whenever we are outdoors it is generally my mother who dotes on her. The other people in the unit must wonder what I am doing here.
I see the swing set and the slide and the carousel every single day and I think I hate them. Most playground toys are essentially vehicles which don’t go anywhere. You can go up and down, or back and forth, or round and round, but you can’t get anywhere in particular. I suppose there’s a certain hopefulness in sheer motion for its own sake. There must’ve been a time when I just wanted to move and didn’t really care if there was no point to it. It’s probably good for children to do that. They can worry about destinations later as long as they don’t wait too long.
My little brother Gavin had learned quite young how to leap from a swing in mid-air, his sneaker feet landing in the sand like paratroopers, before tearing off in some other direction, toward some other destination. He’d been quite good at this, which is probably why he isn’t living here anymore. But it had always made more sense to me to simply stop pumping, rather than leap. Then wait for the swing to come to a natural halt, or at least slow down enough to jump without risking injury. Some people would say this was sensible. But it’s not very courageous, and it takes much longer than jumping off in mid-air.
My brother Gavin is in the army now, stationed somewhere along the eastern border of Turkey. It’s difficult to pick him out in the photos he sometimes sends home to my mother, it’s been so long since anyone’s seen him. I admire the multiple anonymity of uniforms, and how his voice tends to fluctuate between crackling static and the deep tones of a full-grown man neither of us really knows, when he phones home at Christmas time, maybe.
The swing set and the carousel in the yard are painted shiny stripes of red, blue, and yellow. Primary colours.It’s eerie how they sometimes look more real than anything else here. If these days were a movie, the scene would keep cutting back to the swing set and the carousel, but especially the swing set, as though it represented the most primal object on the landscape. The most uncomplicated or uncontaminated one. There must be a type of purity, in motion for the sheer sake of moving. Which is why so many sentimental love scenes show couples dancing, and everyone gets choked up, trying to remember the last time they did something for the sheer kinesis of it.
“Take from the unsnapped pile, Kitten, not the bowl,” says my mother. “That pile is the heads, see.” I keep eating all her raw string beans, heads, tails, spines, and all. My appetite keeps changing, even now. Sometimes I’m still eating for two, or three or four, or even less than one, though my mother says these things should have long stabilized by now. I think she used the word cemented or crystallized, rather than stabilized; some word associated with her work as a dental hygienist at Dr. Spector’s clinic. My mother thinks that my maternal habits should have become as routine as flossing by now, but I have to wonder how she’s never noticed that she herself is the only person ever in the history of the family to floss routinely.
Rose stares at the sky through the yellow netting of her crib. Her face does a twist and seems to recoil into itself, scrunching her eyes and trying to swallow her lips both at once, her fingers opening and curling shut like sea anemone.
“It would be nice to have a few pictures of Rosie-Posie where she isn’t scowling like that,” says my mother. ‘Honestly, the two of you are quite a pair. Like a couple of old women.’
Every time my mother catches my daughter not-scowling, she runs for the camera. But I think maybe Rose scowls because she can see things the rest of us can’t, like through walls or underneath skin. Babies are supposedly unable to distinguish between themselves and other objects in their landscape. When Rose is looking at something, supposedly, she assumes that the thing is part of herself. But I do wish that whatever-it-is she sees didn’t make her scowl all the time. It seems a bad reflection on something.
The groom from the campus riding stable comes up the hill toward us, with a red plastic pail. It surprises me again that he is so young. I know from the water slooshing over the side of the pail that there are pretextual koi inside, my mother having offered to assist a man named Troy in the design of an ornamental pond for the new Japanese pavilion across campus. My mother knows nothing about designing ponds, but endeavours to wear outfits resembling the outfits of women who look like they might. Her wardrobe reminds me of loungewear worn by Diana Rigg on the Avengers. The groom from the riding stable also knows this man Troy, who is sort of his boss, but neither one knows that they both know my mother quite minutely. Sometimes the groom from the stable comes up the hill with miniature trees to show her, or a model bridge to straddle ornamental streams. It doesn’t appear she’s explained to him yet, that it’s actually a certain architect she’s recently become interested in, and not a certain architecture. She tells the young groom that his koi are beautiful, beautiful, over and over again.
‘Yeah, they’re beauties, eh?’ he says, chewing his cheek, while my mother’s lips make fish-bubbles, saying beautiful, beautiful over and over again. There is material evidence in the pucker of my mother’s lips, an emphasis on Oo and Oh sounds. A fish-bubble kissy-lip phenomenon which only appears when she speaks to men who are probably her lovers, or prospective ones. More haphazard versions of these oohs and ohs were extended to men in general, but with certain ones became more pronounced. Suddenly she’d choose to speak of ladies’ shoes, the rolling blues of noon in June, her collection of ornamental spoons, and certain beautiful tunes to which she couldn’t seem to remember the lyrics. She’d tilt her head and hum a few bars, hoping the young man would join in with the words.
But the groom shakes his head and has no clue. The tune must’ve been before his time, he says, daftly. He lifts his trouser leg slightly at the knee, then squats down beside my mother. They talk instead about how greatly appearances are improved by the addition of flowering plants. The groom squats with his brown trousers bunched up, while my mother smoothes her yellow sun-suit quietly over her thighs. Then she seems to remember that Rose and I are sitting right there practically next to her, and that we’ve never been formally introduced to the groom.
‘This is my daughter, Agnes, and this is baby Rosie, my daughter’s daughter.’ My mother and the groom turn immediately to gurgle at Rose.
“Look at her, will you? Have you ever seen such a lovely little girl? Rose is such a good baby, such a quiet baby. She never gives us any trouble at all, does she, no-oo-oh… Agnes on the other hand was born face-first, imagine!”
She means to be casually witty, or something. But it surprises me greatly that she’s been telling near-strangers the face-first thing for as long as I can remember. My mother’s thighs spread open very wide, with my startled red face in between them. Why would she want to go handing people this picture? Sometimes she even reaches out and frames my face in her labial hands, when she tells the story, pressing against my temples, giggling at my reddening cheeks. I can’t fathom why she’d want to conjure up this image to near perfect strangers, let alone to her lover who is scarcely older than I was last birthday.
I don’t mind her telling the story, so much, if it’s taken to mean I’d been born full of curiosity, just wanted to take a good look at the world, from the very moment I was pushed into it. But she might add the detail that I’d tried to brace myself back with my elbows, as though I’d taken one peek and decided I was better off where I was, which is why they had to resort to extracting me like a tooth.
“Wasn’t really my fault,” I tell the crouching groom, who doesn’t seem to want to know any of this.
‘I recall your father wanted to call you little Thel,’ my mother says in a voice like tinkling bells, while the groom attends awkwardly. ‘But it was such an old-fashioned name. Besides, you weren’t all that little, as I recall. You had a good coupla pounds over your own Rosie-Posie, here.’ My mother reminds me frequently of this, crossing un-crossing her legs and lighting a long skinny cigarette, touching the place on her belly where her scar would be.
‘I didn’t retreat back inside,’ I say. ‘I was pulled back and out some other way. It’s not like I was planning things that way.’
‘Well, that’s sounds like you all over’, says my mother, who believes I’ve been evasive about rites of passage since the day I was born. ‘Not saying a body shouldn’t do things in her own time, and on her own legs, Kitten’, my mother says, ‘once she’s located them, that is.’
Sitting out there on the lawn, my mother looks as though she has no legs at all. Her yolk-yellow sun-suit legs are tucked under her knees like a pedestal, a sunnier yellow than my fingers holding back the kitchen curtain. I have retreated back inside the housing unit, my mother having embarrassed all of us with the story of my birth. I wait in the kitchen until the groom goes away again, taking his red bucket of koi with him. My mother and the groom don’t kiss each other this time, as they predictably might, maybe because they think I am watching, which I am.
Now she sits cool as an egg on the lawn, as though waiting for something else to happen. Some other rupture to her serenity. The sound of the telephone ringing, or Rose crying, or dusk descending like freon gas. She doesn’t keep her eyes on the beans she’s snapping, not always, but lets them wander like sheep over the lawn, gathering wool. Sometimes she gazes across the yard, to the communal driveway where a hanging sign says Salmon Court, in painted orange letters on brown wood. The sign is suspended from an L-shaped wooden gallows, like in a ghost town, swaying when it’s windy and soaking up rain, getting bloated then drying out again, and weathering, weathering. The driveway leads up and around the centre of the courtyard in a loop, then doubles back in a running knot, trailing off to the road.
Listen. Lately I’ve been making some plans. I’ve been planning to write a very long letter to Rose, who will be one year old soon. Or sort of a letter but more like a zoological garden of things past. It seems the right time to do it, to put things in writing, though it’s plain that once creatures of memory are penned, their behaviour changes irrevocably. Like creatures in zoos, the memories become aware of being watched, and have more limited options how to respond to the watchers’ eyes. But seeing as there’s this current concern regarding my inability to remember things properly, I must backtrack. I must follow tracks backward, and retread them. Once I catch up to myself in the present, I’ll be ready to find some way of jumping off the swing. Though it remains to be seen what that might mean.
When my mother finally comes inside, she sets down her big bowl of green beans and touches a certain place on her throat with her hand, the place she always touches. She rubs it with her fingers as though invisible stitches were itching her. She comments out loud how little she notices the mountains here, despite how huge they are, looming green and purple like cabbages at dusk.