By Lisa Piazza
Along the sides of the Yuba, the black oaks overlap with the blue, the cedar with the pine. Everything is dry this late in summer and the rocks hold all kinds of heat. I’ve been here before: when I was young. Younger.
I would jump from stone to stone along the river’s edge and swim upriver with the boys. I would dive under and glide forward, ahead of my cousins, disappearing around the bend. My mother would step to the edge and wave from the rocky bank.
I guess she would stand there for a while, wringing her hands, worried about me all the way up at the jumping rock. My cousins ignored me but I didn’t care. I wasn’t as crazy as they were. I didn’t want to climb up and dive or do flips off the huge rock slabs, slapping into the river fast and hard, then climbing out to do it all over again.
Nothing bad happened.
No cousin cracked his head on the sharp edge of an underwater rock – no burst of blood bubbled up to the surface from a cut foot or shin. We had fun. Usually I would find a smooth, sloped section in one of the huge pieces of granite, half in and half out of the water, and mold my body into the curve. It was the perfect shape to hold me and so I relaxed into the rhythm of the river, letting the water ripple and pool into my lap.
Once I found a chunk of gold. I was six, swimming in the shallow part of the river, chasing the small silver fish among the rocks and reeds when I saw something sparkling under the water. I carried it carefully back to shore.
“Fool’s Gold!” my cousin Michael called it.
“Sure is pretty, though,” my mother had said.
“It’s real – feel it.” I was certain.
“Haha! Fool’s gold for the fool,” Michael laughed. He was eleven and mean then.
“Stop it now,” my aunt had said – coming toward me with a towel and a small container. I dropped the gold into the plastic yogurt tub and carried it around for a while. When we got ready to go, everyone asked if I had my gold and I nodded yes but secretly left it behind. If it was real, it belonged here. If it was fake, I didn’t want to know.
I never looked for gold there again.
I found other things to do. Like leaning back onto the hot rocks and letting the sun blaze full force on my forehead. I imagined the enormous chunks of granite surrounding me were cruise ships, then whales, then whale bones, sculpted clean by water and time. I climbed onto the top of an ancient elephant of a rock jutting out from the brush over the water and stretched out on its back. It was too hot to stay long so I jumped into the shade of the trees to cool my feet.
That’s when I saw the bear.
A black bear – not too big, with a golden snout and shiny gold eyes.
Was I that close? Close enough to feel the bear’s hot breath? Something in the shared glance and glare took me close. Closer. If I had wanted to, I could have sidled up and touched the animal.
Should you be here?
The bear was down on all fours. Curious, it stopped, turned, resumed its lumbering and moved away. I almost followed it. I took one step even though I knew better. Even though I knew I was supposed to look big, make a loud noise.
But what I wanted was to become
so the bear
would brush past me
so the bear
would know me
I know nature doesn’t work that way.
Even silent, even still, the bear knew it too. It left me alone.
I listened to the crack of the branches under its feet until the sound, like the bear, disappeared – deep into the brush, deeper into the forest then.
I came out of the bushes and looked for Michael.
“Hey!” I shouted, ready to tell him everything.
But my cousins weren’t on the big rock and they weren’t splashing around in the water either. I looked upriver and saw them sitting at the bubbling edge of the rapids, holding steady in the rushing force. I could have gone over there – but once I slipped into the river, I let the current take me the other way. I floated on my back all the way down to where the grown-ups were sitting under the canopy in a circle of folding chairs, holding plates in their laps.
“You’re back! You want a towel, Rae?” My mom called out.
“The boys still up there?” My aunt asked. My mother set down her plate and looked around for a towel but it was so hot my skin dried out before she could find one.
“Well, come on anyway and have some lunch. I’ll make you a plate.”
I was still small enough – and my mother still loved me enough – to sit on her lap. But I didn’t do it. Instead I took my plate down to the water’s edge and sat with my legs in. My toes sparkled in the shallow stream – I wiggled them around like little fish and let the glistening sun turn my secret to gold.
If the past is a blanket, I want to tuck myself in. Sleep like a baby. This baby. My baby nestled here in the crook of my arm – damp with doughy sweat.
That garage door closes and so
and so it is safe again to breathe.
The baby’s father, this man I married without knowing
what I know now
has left (for once)
without an angry burst to burrow
bury burden or bind us.
We live like eggs nesting on the edge of a chest
each ledge of breath
a crack away
and this isn’t the life I wanted but here I am up and in the bathroom feeding the baby, changing her, snuggling her into the sling then out the door to the new Peet’s down on Fruitvale Avenue – past the park and the library and the bank with its dirty parking lot and sleeping security guard until – inside the café:
I turn around after the third time and even without my glasses on I see him: there in line behind the bearded guy, next to the table with soy milk, cream, packets of soggy sugar: Mitch, from high school. Here out of nowhere. Fleshed out into the heft of a man. Our one kiss seventeen years ago was barely a brush of lips in his darkened bedroom. The golden suburban streetlight streamed dimly through closed blinds. He held both sides of my face. We jumped when his dad, drunk by the pool, called for us.
At seventeen, I begged him not to join the Marines. It was a political stance more than a romantic one. Still, Mitch sent me letters from boot camp, wishing me well. What did I know then of escape, or debt? Limited options? I had been accepted to a small liberal arts college; my parents would pay the bill.
He smiles at me here with that same true smile.
“What’s going on? How are you?”
My face a red rash.
“Good. Fine. Yeah. What are you doing here?”
“Not much, not much. I live off Lincoln.” He points in the general direction and I see he isn’t alone. Pretty and blond, of course: “This is Shannon.” Clearly not his wife.
“And – is this your beautiful baby?”
Mona – asleep in the sling.
My baby. Mine alone. The skin under my wedding ring flares up a blotch of botched everything burning so I say: “I looked for you on Facebook.”
“I’m around.” He shrugs. “Usually here, or at the place across the street.”
“It is really good to see you. How strange – you know, to both end up here.” I open my arms, burdened as they are with my coffee, the baby, to hug him. I shouldn’t have. When he leans in the clean scent of his detergent makes me want to cry. The earthy, newly cut lawn smell of his skin is too much. It feels like home – not the home I have with Mona’s dad but the world I lived in as a child – long summer days in the neighborhood, playing kickball in the cul-de-sac, sliding in cardboard boxes down the dry grassy hill behind my best friend’s house. I put my head down on the heat of his shoulder like the heat of a boulder at the Yuba I want to stay awhile except
“Great to see you.” He steps back.
I have to leave first and so I do, get out the door walk
in the general direction of – where am I going?
But I get lost. The day suddenly sliced. Hours halved, years, too, minutes shift dissolve and I am here, holding a baby, balancing on one foot, rocking half forward, half back, between time while the past swings like a door on loose hinges creaking now open, now shut, open, shut, open.
If I ever pictured a life with Mitch, it involved a hot dusty town with two rascally children, boys, no doubt, with an overflowing bin of sports equipment and plastic toy giving his gun a female name. He said the soldiers were required to care for their guns like they would a woman: something they could love, hold and ultimately control.
At the bus stop passing in front of Soon’s Lounge, next to the store that sells human hair, at the dirtiest intersection in our part of Oakland, I see an old woman leaning against the brick bar. She is smeared with swabs of brilliant blue eye shadow and crooked candy-pink lipstick. She cackles as I cross in front of her and when I look back I see she is holding the leash of a small curly white dog in a red unitard and tutu. The word Heartbreaker is scrawled across its back.
The fancy gold lettering glares at me like a dare: You Are Here
(But you are not here.)
At night I dream myself real again – asleep with the baby next to me only to wake up gasping in my old twin bed.
You are here.
(But you are not here.)
Both places at once: mother and child – wanting that grey-blue room to soothe me with its wooden dresser and desk. Those shutters over the windows that fogged up in the fall. Some evenings I felt lucky just to catch the orange glow of the sunset over the purple hills.
What will Mona feel lucky to see?
Not me: years later, in family court, stuck between the fluorescent lights and the judge’s mild manner, beside the clerk’s busyness and the court reporter’s fast fingers. Not me, floating above ten a.m. toward eleven when it clicks; I don’t even flinch as the lawyer leans in neatly to tell me it looks better if I cry.
I swear to tell the whole truth and nothing but/what comes out is this: like the Cuisinart our marriage, too, remained unused
(stored under the stairs, we chose potential over purpose never wrecked
or lost a blade
never gave the machine over
to wear or tear.)
The judge only nods, hands folded under his chin, thinking – of what? His daughter’s softball game later that night? Where he might pick up dinner before? Whether he should change the batteries in the smoke detectors this weekend, or next?
(All the reasons why his wife never irons his shirts?)
Why should he care whether I fare far worse in the measure for better?
Tipped and torn/my foot in the door/head in the wall/spine on the floor/baby in the street/husband on his feet. We lived for years on cruelty, cradling our curses in carved out hollows, whole organs gutted and splayed (now on display).
“What’s one more day?
Is it my lawyer or his who says it only takes half a heart to haul this carcass back?
What else is marriage than that?
The judge asks for details: days, dates, times, seasons, the baby, the baby – Mona, now six. When asked in class to write about something that scares her, she says: my dad and the class laughs. It’s a joke, right?
I am given two half-days to show full damage – to prove we have suffered enough for the judge to believe I’m not making it up. I stare out the courthouse window at a bare branch: winter clean with worry, and speak of unopened bags of votive candles from Ikea next to empty flower vases we got for our wedding. Bubble-wrapped china eager for a scrape of the fork, a spin of the spoon, the slice of a knife not a moment too soon.
Time pays a different mind.
In the courthouse lobby a collacine swarm pushes me toward the door. I exit by force alone. Outside the stormy grey sky dips so low the mist kisses the sidewalk where I stand.
I am here
(but not here)
I am six years behind then six years ahead where a new evening peace causes me to pause. In the quiet, I look up from my work at the kitchen table, up from the paper, put down the pen, and watch Mona (twelve, now) stretching her legs at the window –
what world out there?
what world in here?
Such quiet love, us.
It’s calm and we (alone here) breathe in a house that breathes with us. She says goodnight, mom and puts herself to sleep and it’s true I prayed for this ease
– still, I
stand in her doorway just to watch the way she settles her head on the pillow.
Time pays no mind. Rewind.
Back to the courtroom where it’s cold again: the mist no kiss but a wet reminder of where I am. I step toward the polluted water across the street from the courthouse where the crunchy sand hunkers under the slick bay. Most people know better than to swim here. But more than once, someone has asked to drown here. You can read about it in the local paper. The article will explain how a crowd stood speechless on the shore while a man in full dress – suit, tie, shoes – walked out into the bay and never came back.
Everyone claimed he didn’t want to be saved.
Summer heat leans in and Mona’s high on a ladder, holding a paintbrush. Done with lavender, done with baby blue, she’s painting her room light grey. Pale as river rocks dried by the sun.
I watch her at the window watching
– what? She asks.
I go back to my own summer chore: cleaning the linen closet. On the bottom shelf, tucked in the corner, a small stack of washcloths – pale pink, baby soft. I want to leave them there, as if to toss away the baby towels is to toss away the baby.
The baby washes her own face now.
Fourteen and tall enough to reach the mirror, critical enough to care about a crooked tooth and that spot on the end of her nose. Who knows how her days pass?
I will study the way her eyes open and close
the clothes she picks out
and piles in the middle of her door
blocking her room from the rest of the house.
How does this go?
The baby knows her survival is stunning.