I am a story—a dark and stormy night once upon a time that is not now, in a land that is not here.
I am tattered pages—stained with coffee, dog eared, streaks of yellow highlighting subtext.
Look for me between the letters, the words, the punctuation, the subject-verb agreement errors.
Out of context, I make no sense.
The poem is untitled. I wrote it for my senior English class. I whisper the words while I lie supine on the bathroom floor at my grandmother’s house. It’s my birthday—Grace, with the cat-like gait and the perfect tits. I smile and touch my chest. They are perfect, aren’t they, I say to the dusty light fixture.
The floor is cold Italian tile. My grandmother is German-Irish. My parents are dead—metaphorically speaking.
I’ve been in here for twenty minutes—the first ten standing, palms pressed against the walls, one by one, all four of them, a box; the second ten lying down, the cold seeping through my clothes like dew. I can’t touch the ceiling. On a dark and stormy night two years ago, an oak tree ripped through the shingles and insulation and wood and sheetrock and splintered the bathroom ceiling. For two clear nights, I sprawled on the floor and watched the stars. Once, I think I saw the Seven Sisters. Or maybe it was Venus.
I bought myself a birthday present: red spike heels. I told the lady at the shoe store they were for my mother. I slip them on and click my heels. There’s no place like the bathroom. It’s the only place I feel safe. My grandmother made my uncle remove the lock on my bedroom door after my English teacher phoned about the poem:
I’m concerned, Mr. Smith said. There’s so much subtext.
It’s not a big deal, I told my grandmother. It’s just a poem.
“Look for me between the letters?” she said. Her voice was blue. It’s usually gray. What does that mean? she said.
Out of context it has no meaning, I said.
I close my eyes and stare at the squiggly red lines behind my eyelids. They’re like stage lights, or exit signs. Or squiggly red shoes. My mother took me to see that movie—The Red Shoes—at a film festival when I was ten. I wanted to be a dancer after that. You can’t, she said. Then I want red shoes, I said. You can’t, she said. I don’t know if she meant you can’t have them or you can’t want them.
I wanted them.
I roll over on my side and push myself up, teetering on my red heels. They’re open toe with ankle straps.
The heat clicks on. The vent by the door coughs up a jet of warm air. I can hear my grandmother bellowing at the TV in the living room. She’s chastising the defendant on Judge Judy. I’m supposed to fine her a dollar every time she curses, to help her break the habit. Worked for smoking, she said. It didn’t really. She locks herself in the bathroom with a can of air freshener and her Camels and opens the window. The room stinks of scorched April rain later. Even in January.
I am so remote from them, I whisper to my reflection in the mirror. Between them and me there will be even fewer bonds, and the last will be broken if to their contempt for me I oppose my love of them.
It’s a quote from Jean Genet, The Thief’s Journal. My English teacher called my grandmother about that, too:
This is no book a high school kid should be reading, he said. What filth.
It’s no big deal, I told her. It’s just a book.
She thumbed through the pages, reading aloud bits I’d highlighted:
It is said that leprosy, to which I compare our state, causes an irritation of the tissues; the sick person scratches himself; he gets an erection. Masturbation becomes frequent.
What does that mean? she said. I don’t mean what does it mean. I know what it means. I mean, what does it mean to you?
I shrugged. You took it out of context.
She confiscated the book. It was her moral duty as my guardian, she said. She read it surreptitiously, in the bathroom, with the door locked, and the window open. She left it in there by mistake once. It smelled of scorched April rain.
I stare at my shoes. Grace, with the red heels and the perfect tits. I touch my chest. They are perfect, aren’t they, I say to my feet, dots at the distal end of exclamation points. I smile. At least I’m not a question mark. How awful to be curved, deformed. I stare at my shoes.
The house goes silent. Judge Judy is over. I return the shoes to their box and tuck it beneath the extra pillows and towels in the linen closet.
I hear the clomp clomp of my grandmother’s slippers coming down the hall. She’s singing the birthday song in her gray voice:
Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you.
I’m eighteen today. Grace, with her ten-plus-three-and-five-year old arms and legs and stomach and perfect tits. I am a story, a tattered page, an exclamation point, a dark and stormy night.
Come on out now, she chirps. Let us eat cake. She laughs at her own joke.
I turn on the water and splash my face, scrub off the blush, the eye shadow. Not yet, I say. I’m not done in here.
Well, I need to get in there, she says.
She needs a smoke.
Goddamn it, you’ve been in there for ages.
That’s a dollar, I say.
Just hurry up.
I dry my face on the hand towel then unlock the door. She breezes by me and checks her hair in the mirror, fluffing it with her hands. She’s waiting for me to leave. We both have our secrets. Neither of which is very secret.
I’ll be along in a minute and you can blow out the candles, she says, patting my arm. Start thinking about what you want to wish for.
The window creaks open. She thinks I’m gone. I hear her light her Camel, then exhale. I exhale.
Are you out there, Michael? she snaps.
Yes, I say. I am.
I leave her with her cigarettes and air freshener and subtext and Grace, with the red shoes. I leave her with my narrative. How will she read me? Inspiration must come first. Vision. Then red shoes.