By Michelle Latiolais
BELLEVUE LITERARY PRESSCopyright © 2011 Michelle Latiolais
All right reserved.
Widow...............................9 The Long Table......................21 Boys................................25 Tattoo..............................35 Pink................................39 Place...............................45 The Moon............................59 Crazy...............................61 Involution..........................67 Caduceus............................75 Thorns..............................83 Gut.................................89 Hoarding............................113 The Legal Case......................125 Breathe.............................131 Burqa...............................139 Damned Spot.........................145 Acknowledgments.....................158
* * *
She is sitting on the examining table wrapped in a paper gown, one of those dull pretty colors chosen for women, mauve, and she might as well be trying to cover herself with a refrigerator box, as the paper gown is all eaves and walls and encloses her like a shed or fallen timbers. She peers from this structure, the gown's neck up around her jaw, which she holds down so she can answer his questions without talking through a paper mask.
"Yes," she says, "No," and they are the same answer —yes, she has not had sexual intercourse for almost two years; no, she has not had sexual intercourse for almost two years—and he shakes his head, the gynecologist, and says it yet again, looks up at her. "Wow," he says. "Wow." He scoots around a bit on his castered stool, continues to read the chart; she is a new patient, and the nurse practitioner has made copious notes. "What did you do," he says, "kill your husband?" It is a quip—she hears this—a quip, an icebreaker, out of his mouth so quickly it's obvious he hasn't thought for an instant what he is saying. Perhaps he's used to treating divorced women who are angry, or unmarried women in Los Angeles, of which there seem to be many—dating, not dating—perhaps he's used to commiserating about "what jerks men are." She doesn't know, but she can't find it in herself to punish him for this comment either, can't bring herself to grind in just how callous a remark it is, how unbelievably out of line. Maybe what saves him is that she had a happy marriage. She knows that everyone says stupid things, knows how to forgive and be forgiven, a happy marriage.
She looks down at him on his stool. She keeps a mild look on her face, a look she learned from a colleague of hers, a look with hang time in it, a look that allows just enough time for you to gather to your narrow wits that you've said something terribly stupid, time-stoppingly stupid. Certainly he hears what has just flown from his mouth, and he starts to say something—perhaps to apologize— changes his mind, looks down, flips to the second page of the chart, looks up, scoots back against the wall, hikes his loafered foot up onto the stool rung, asks, "So, what do you think is going on?" and she thinks this a smart opening for a male gynecologist to offer a female patient, the authority of her own body, but then, before she can answer, he says again, "Wow, two years, you haven't had sex in two years?" and he fixes her with a look, and she realizes that it is her turn to say "Wow."
He thinks she is lying.
Wandering is better than place sometimes, than home, than destination. Sometimes she can eke out the idea that wandering is possibility, chance, serendipity—he might be there, that place she didn't think to look, hadn't worked hard enough to find; and sometimes wandering is better because she forces herself to move, and one day, at a neighborhood mall, she wanders into Barnes & Noble, a bookstore she rarely patronizes, and she stands before the shelf of etiquette books and pulls down each book and turns to "Widow," to "Death," to all the fine advice and less fine insistences, her favorite being "A widow never wears pearls ... or if she dares to, they must be black or gray."
Sometimes wandering is not better; it's the horror of having no place she is going, no place he needs her to be, wants her to be, no one wanting her the way he wanted her. Then she sleeps, long blacked-out hours, her head beneath pillows, the quilt, and when she wakes, her pink pearls, sinuous on the vanity, comfort her; there are advantages to living in such an oblivious culture.
She has known what the word widow meant since she was seventeen years old, sitting uncomfortably in a course titled Women and Appearance, team-taught by two butch lesbians disdainful of anything she recognized as female. One of the professors occupied a wheelchair awkwardly, almost sideways, and had since birth, cerebral palsy or MS—she would never know—and the professor's misogyny was spectacular and blistering and successfully kept her from claiming any allegiance to feminism until years later, when she sorted herself out from the professor's furious projections, equations that had gone something along these lines of:
—her high-heeled shoes were a mindless acceptance of hobbling, on par with MS or palsy
—her lipstick, a shroud cast upon vital, unmaimed, unflawed flesh
—her slimness—genetic as it was—somehow more willfully derived through deprivation to please a male world
Her handicapped professor knew more deeply than any of them the chains of being female. What was tricky— and she knew this even then—was that she believed the professor had suffered more than she would ever suffer, no matter what happened to her, no matter what had happened to her now; and she knew from this class so long ago that widow meant "empty" in Sanskrit, and this empty could only be meant sexually, no hot dog for your bun, no sausage for your muff, that sort of thing, but she didn't yet have that humor at seventeen, was not yet equipped with the flippant bawdiness she came to admire as truly feminist and unapologetic and unabashedly sexual.
"So, what do you think is going on?" he asks her again.
She bolts her food now. Not to bolt her food is to take enough time to lose her appetite. Her periods have stopped, she has lost so much weight. She stands most evenings in her kitchen, shoveling in food, feeding herself as rapidly as she can swallow. Her mother said to them so often as children, "Don't stand there feeding like animals at the trough. For God's sake, sit down and eat like civilized human beings," and she has tried, has set the small table in the breakfast room with candles and a napkin, silverware, a wineglass, a water glass, moved a bowl of fruit or flowers, some centerpiece, fanned out magazines, all manner of enticement to normalcy, but this decorum is in such stark contrast to the ruin within her. She sits down to it, but she might as well be a stone god made offerings to, the food still there in the morning in the folds of her granite lap.
In filling out the medical history, there are the little boxes in which one places the check or the X or just blackens the space entirely, and when she gets to the choices "single" or "married," and there is no other box, she cannot mark either. Even dependable Leviticus weighs in on widows and aligns them with whores and divorced women and forbids priests from marrying such defiled creatures, chapter 21, verse 14, And the Lord said unto Moses, a widow, or a divorced woman, or profane, or an harlot, these shall he not take: but he shall take a virgin of his own people to wife. Since this is a gynecological medical history, she laughs aloud in the office, garners looks from the receptionist, wants very much the box that reads "whore, profane, harlot, widow," a catch-all box, and she intends every imaginable pun in the world by this.
More soberly, she writes in the word "widow."
It's not that she's being unreasonable about the questionnaire; rather, it's an attempt to give them some sense of her actual physical state. She has been surprised by grief, its constancy, its immediacy, its unrelenting physical pain.
Sometimes she is almost hysterical, as though every cell in her body were popping with excitement, ebullient, effervescent. At first this astonished her, this wave of wild nervous glee she swept forward on ... but she came to understand the body could not withstand grief every waking moment, that the body would insist on a cessation for a time of the morbidity of grieving.
So, it could be that she was shrill and laughing, insistently laughing, a laughter that demanded itself into being, her mind leaping at any possible comment by someone, or any attribute that could be made a joke, funny, fodder for the laugh track, and she knew it to be happening when it happened, was conscious of the laughing faces around her, conscious as though she stood behind glass and the faces at once stared and laughed, their lips and eyes and mouths all laughing ... and she could hear her body's desperate bull-horning. She supposed those around her recognized the merriment for the desperation it was ... but did they know her body drove this ecstatic desperation forward?
And so, she will drive home after being at some gathering, a reception or a party, and she will feel her nerves sparking, nervously desultory, frayed with hysteria, and she will be ashamed of herself, will know that everyone has laughed out of politeness or the relief that she isn't an unhappy prospect to be around. What or whom can she trust now? She will say to herself, "You're trying too hard; you don't need to try so hard." But it isn't exactly that, either; it is her body insisting on whatever laughter provides.
"Exercise?" he asks, his back leaned up against the wall, his elbow resting on the chrome lid of one of the tall trash bins. HAZARDOUS, it reads. He has stopped looking at her chart and it now rests half on and half off the Formica counter. He sits forward abruptly, suggests for the second time "spinning," and she finally says, "I'm sorry, I don't know what you mean by 'spinning.' I walk a lot. In the mornings, early, several miles perhaps. I don't know."
"No gym?" he says, rising from his stool and pulling out the metal arms of the examining table, one on each side of her.
"No," and she thinks to say, Not my thing, not my scene, but she doesn't. She knows how odd she is to most people, and when there was someone at home to enfold her, a place where she belonged, it did not matter, but now she stops from adding fuel to anyone's sense of her, says as little as possible.
"It's a twisting machine," he tells her, "for toning the midsection, but you sit on it—I don't know why it's called 'spinning.'"
"No," she says quickly, precipitously, "no spinning, no bike riding, I really just walk...." And she is about to say and I do a lot of my own housework, but she doesn't say this, either, knows in Los Angeles that might be even weirder than saying you don't frequent a gym, an admission, really, of being down on your luck, in straitened circumstances— something you'd never admit in fantasy town—but housework, it's exercise, and that is all she means to establish.
BIG UNIQUE SOFA!! Three words across the top of a flyer tacked up to a telephone pole on the corner near her house. This has made her laugh out loud. BIG UNIQUE SOFA and a few exclamation marks and a telephone number and maybe there was a price—she does not remember— really she remembers just the words BIG UNIQUE SOFA and the exclamation marks. Was there a band of little slips with the telephone number fluttering in the wind made by the traffic? She cannot remember that, either.
What could such an item promise? she asks herself. What could possibly be unique about a sofa? All the sofas I've known, she muses, all the gin joints ... and you choose this. But then she is thinking about the sofa, the couch, in the therapist's office in Brentwood, the chenille throw spread across its seat, to cover stains or to prevent stains, she cannot tell which, but the six or seven times she leaves the office, she straightens it, pulls it taut again, doesn't like the throw there, doesn't like that it retains an impression of her. The therapist tells her every time not to worry about it, that she'll fix it, but she does not want a doctor straightening out a chenille throw after she leaves ... something unnervingly domestic, assertively domestic. It bothers her enough that she has left the therapist with notes about her life, like hair or nail clippings left behind in a salon. It's not rational; she doesn't insist that it is, or even that it should be. She doesn't trust this blur of the professional and personal, cannot appreciate this exchange of money for her unguarded thoughts and feelings, doesn't trust professional ethics over codes of friendship or family—and she feels she has done her duty to her family by "seeing a therapist," and when the suggestion comes from the doctor, as she knew it ultimately would, that she take antidepressants, she leaves the office and never returns. She is deeply confused by someone studying someone else's mind and wanting to alter it chemically at the same time. BIG UNIQUE SOFA.
So impossible to go to doctors. He quarrels with every surmise the physician's assistant has made, says no, no, he doesn't think it's peri-menopausal. "No, no," he snaps, "throw that cream away; it's useless," and she is happy to, has read its prescription insert, the cancer warnings, but she has also spent money on it, at his office's advice, and she has suffered for several weeks beyond an initial visit with the physician's assistant. There is no apology for this mis-diagnosis, and certainly he doesn't cover for his own assistant, and she finds this astounding, the flipness, and she is very, very annoyed and trying to keep a lid on it, trying not to take his head off.
Leaving her attorney's office one day, they are both standing, about to approach the door, and he reaches for her hand, which rises from her side in the habit of shaking hands—is in his hand instantly, a matter of physical convention— and then she flinches, her entire body electrical, spastic, and she pulls her hand back, shrinking from his touch.
She understands only after she is safely out of the huge lush offices and down the tremendous shaft of the elevator, into the shadowy parking garage and alone in the clean dark plushness of her husband's car that she has not been touched by anyone in a month, even to shake hands, even an armacross her shoulder ... not touched, and her body is so un-used to not being touched, is still so searching and desperate, frantic for his presence, his hold, and now she has flinched at the touch of a man whom she likes very much, and who has helped her—has helped her to stay alive, as she would not be had he not agreed to represent her.
He is no idiot. For one thing, he is a plaintiff's attorney, and either they have empathy by nature or they learn it, and she knows he has not missed a flinch, a tremor, her whisking her hand out of his. He has not missed a thing. Also—because he has rescued her, because he has lent credence to what she knows has caused her husband's death— she is a little in love with him, as anyone is with one's rescuer, anyone desperate for relief, and lonely.
She is with Portia at a party, a dinner, and they are laughing, lost for a moment from dead husbands, from workmen who now stand too long in the kitchen, looking around, free from lawyers who won't return phone calls, or frompersonal bankers now slow to respond ... and so Portia and she will be out, and they will finally be laughing, sprung, and someone without fail will say, "Ah, the merry widows!"
They will stop laughing.
They will look at him.
They will look back at each other.
They will wait quietly until that person leaves.
They will say nothing.
Sorrow in her is so pervasive, so stultifying, she is slow to turn to anger. A lot of people's lives are spared because of this.
Excerpted from Widow by Michelle Latiolais Copyright © 2011 by Michelle Latiolais. Excerpted by permission of BELLEVUE LITERARY PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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