Purple velvet

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When I start to remember my father’s attic room, I feel a tug of desire quickly followed by revulsion.  Desire and revulsion are two sides of the same coin, I’ve heard.

I am a divorced middle-aged woman with a good job as a systems analyst. I own a three-bedroom townhouse in Mississauga built in 1990, no attic, no basement, no hidden corners.  I live with my 22-year-old son who says he will move out once he finishes his computer science degree and gets a good job. No hurry, I tell him. And I mean it.  It’s just him and me here and that’s fine. He can stay as long as he likes.

I grew up in a big house in Toronto, out in the Beaches area. When I was growing up, in the 1960s and 70s, the Beaches were not yet a modish place to live. They were backwater, and our house was a bit of an eyesore. The roof had moss, and the front yard was filled with weeds. My mother had a diploma in applied arts, but she ended up freelance copy-editing because she was a natural with language. My father was an adjunct professor at the University of Toronto. He had gotten his MA in English in 1965 and, like so many other students, had embarked on a PhD only to abandon it after seven years. Seven years of stabbing at it, until it was finally dead. This is the fate of so many PhD students. Did you know most of those who start PhDs never complete their degrees?

Dad started teaching when I was about five years old, and from then on, that’s all I remember, that he taught composition courses with the odd literature course thrown in. Piles of exam booklets on our hall table, stacks of typed, stapled essays scarred with white-out.  His slanted handwriting in blue fountain pen along the margins of student papers. And the books. Books were everywhere in our house.

His abandoned PhD had been on attic spaces in 19th century literature.  He was prescient: Gilbert and Gubar published their feminist masterwork Madwoman in the Attic in 1979 in which they argued that the attic in women’s literature was a site of female oppression. But my father, before his time, was arguing for a more nuanced view.  Eliot’s Maggie Tulliver, Alcott’s Jo March, Bronte’s Bertha Mason and Lucy Snowe, and Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway: All had attic rooms with different possibilities, sometimes empowering and other times oppressive.  Perhaps he was a proto-second-wave-feminist. If he had actually finished the dissertation, I feel certain it would have been important and published as a monograph. My father is brilliant. He would have been celebrated, gotten a tenure track job somewhere, and I would have grown up in Berkeley, or London, or Chicago.  But he never did finish, just got more and more resentful at his supervisor (it was all his fault of course), while he toiled away as an adjunct, teaching six, seven, even eight classes a year crammed with mostly ignorant undergraduates, and the odd shining star student whom he praised at the dinner table.

My father had taken over the attic room in our house as his study.  We moved into that house when I was very young, so my earliest memories are that the attic was “Dad’s study.” My sister and brother and I were a little scared of it, yet drawn to it as well.  My father had told us he needed a private space and we weren’t allowed there unless he invited us in, nor should we disturb him when he was working. The times I was invited in I can count on one hand—and I lived in that house from two until I left for university at eighteen.  At a certain age, I did start to make the occasional secret visit. And then I started to visit more frequently.

There was a door at the bottom of a set of steep steps that ascended to the room.  The walls on the staircase were covered with brown burlap that was peeling at some places, especially at the seams.  As you entered the large room with its dramatically angled ceiling, the first thing you felt was the heaviness of the stuff in the room—bookshelves of dark wood lined almost all of the walls and they were crammed with books of all sizes and shapes.  And the books weren’t lined up all nice and tidy, either: They stuck out and bristled with extruding notes and bookmarks. There was the smell of Nag Champa incense—sweet flowers, sandalwood, and charcoal.

A large purple velvet sofa was to the right as you walked into the room; the springs almost gone, the two concave cushions molded by the bottoms of hundreds of previous sitters. The nap was worn away on the two arms, and patches of shiny brown material showed underneath.

To the left as you entered was my father’s desk—really just an old door set up on concrete blocks with a wooden captain’s chair in front of it. An ancient gooseneck lamp threw light over his typewriter and disorderly sheaves of paper.  Very little light entered this refuge—just two small dormer windows whose sills were crammed with more books and pottery incense holders from Mom’s early days as an art student.  The rust Berber carpet was old and stained of course. We had no money for anything new.

The room was unremarkable, but the feelings I had about it were complex. When I was 11, my brother Carl had told me that he had snuck in once when Dad was away at a conference and had discovered that one whole upper shelf of books—out of our reach—was filled with “erotica.”

“What’s erotica?” I asked Carl.

“Books about sex or with sex scenes in them,” he explained kindly. He could have made fun of me for not knowing—even though it would be a rare 11 year old that knew that word.

“Oh. Why, do you think he likes to read that?” I ventured.

“I dunno. Because he’s tired of having sex with Mom?”

I felt sad when I heard that, but competing with the sadness was a tug of excitement. I wanted to see those books too.

After that, I started to plan and execute my own stealth visits to the study.  Dad’s current teaching schedule was always taped to the fridge so we would know his office hours and teaching times. That helped me gauge how much time I had to get in and out.  And my mother was out working too, at a new press. Sometimes she had late hours there. So I was pretty free to go explore.  One time I went in and just walked around, looking at all of the objects. I sat briefly on the purple velvet couch, sinking into the soft crater and feeling the creak of the springs beneath me.  I touched the blue incense box, with the long wooden sticks protruding from the crinkly paper. I picked it up and smelled the heady, fruity odour that would stay on my hands all day. I ran my hand over the book titles, sometimes taking a book out to look at it, careful to return it to its place just so. I stood in the middle of the room, the rough rug under my bare toes, and listened to the dull thunder of traffic on Lakeshore Blvd.

Another time, I brought the small kitchen stool with me so I could get to the “erotica,” as Carl called it.  I positioned the stool right under the shelf and reached. I was just able to touch the spine of Fanny Hill, between Tropic of Cancer and Story of the Eye, but couldn’t get my fingers around it. The books on this shelf were packed in tight.   A larger book stuck out from the shelf, making it more accessible, so I pulled out The Joy of Sex. The book looked brand new, and I wondered if Dad had bought it recently.  I sat on the couch and had a good look at the cover, a bearded, long-haired man kissing a woman. They were naked except she seemed to be wearing his unbuttoned shirt.  I flipped through some of the pages, and the book opened to an illustration of a man’s face in a woman’s private parts. All you could see was the back of his long curly hair and his broad back and her face with eyes closed and beatific smile. As I examined the picture, I started to feel warm and tingly down there.

I thought I heard the front door opening and closing, so I quickly shut the book and tried to return it to its place, but it was hard because the other books around it had sort of collapsed into the void. I had to pull my Dad’s captain’s chair over to the bookshelf so I could gain some purchase on the shelf with my hands and clear a space to ease the book back in.  Wow, that was close, I said to myself once I put the captain’s chair back, grabbed the stool, and got safely down to my room.

After that, my confidence grew, and I started to borrow the odd book from his shelves—novels or books of poems that looked interesting. I knew, of course, he’d be furious if he knew I had been in there, so I was extremely careful to leave everything as I found it and to return the books promptly. I was a fast reader.  I borrowed from Dad’s secret library for several years without a mishap. I had decided to leave the shelf of erotica alone, however. I felt a little scared about what I didn’t know. I wanted to not know.

Then I turned sixteen, a tough year for me.  I mean, I was smart and good in school, but not athletic or particularly pretty.  God this sounds so cliché! And another cliché, we were reading A Catcher in the Rye in English 11! I suppose I identified with the alienated teen, Holden Caulfield. I loved the book. I even started using “crumbum” to mean something shitty.

In April of that year, it was still snowing, wet snow on and off most days. But there was also spring in the air, so a combination of spring snow and the smell of the earth. I remember the snow because when Dad’s student Denise arrived at the front door, she was wearing big black snow boots and an off-white parka. She stamped hard on the porch before she entered, and when she came into the foyer and threw back the parka hood, trimmed with fake fur, a few chunks of wet snow slid onto the floor.  Her cheeks were moist and red and her eyelashes had water droplets in them.

“Hi, I’m Denise Rothgar. I don’t know if your father said, but I’m here to see him about a paper I’m writing for his class.”

She had black hair in a short feathery cut, and she wore big peacock feather earrings that mixed in with her hair, making it look like she had big green-gold eyes framing her face.  She had a book bag in one hand and her purse in the other. I was a bit mesmerized by her beauty. To me, she looked like a Cherokee princess (whatever that was). That is the thought that arose, though—Cherokee princess.  Along with Salinger’s novel, I had been reading a history book about the Trail of Tears, so I had Cherokees on the brain.

“No, Dad didn’t say. Here, let me take your coat—you can put your boots on the tray.”  I hung up the parka in our hall closet and it immediately fell off the flimsy wire hanger, which flustered me. Why is this girl here? Dad never had students to the house. This was a first.

I heard Dad coming down the steps from his study and then down the next flight of steps to the first floor of the house. He came up behind me and in his deep casual voice greeted his student as if I weren’t there.

“Denise, how are you? Any trouble finding the place?”

“No, Professor Blummer.”

“Come on up to my study.”

Then, as an afterthought, he looked over at me while I struggled to get the parka onto another hanger, a wooden one this time, “Cynthia, I’ll be at least an hour. Let your Mother know not to disturb me.”

“Okay, Dad.”

I got so entranced in the book that I forgot to say anything to Mom. I was reading in the living room, just off of the front hall, when Denise came softly padding down the stairs about an hour and fifteen minutes later.  I looked up at her and smiled.

“Are you loving Salinger?” she asked, beaming a big smile back at me. She had caught the title on the spine of the book.

“Oh, I adore this novel!” I cried, leaping to my feet in enthusiasm and to get Denise’s coat.

“What high school?”

I opened the hall closet.  “Malvern.”

“Teacher?”

“Mr. O’Neill.” I took her damp coat off the hanger and stood there watching her sit on the hall stool to pull on her boots.

“Oh my goodness, I had him too!” she laughed.  “You know, you’ll really impress him if you also read The Great Gatsby, and start talking about this other unreliable narrator, Nick Carraway.  I mean O’Neill is all about Holden Caulfield as unreliable narrator. And I know you’re going to love Fitzgerald.”

She stood up and I held her coat up as she slid her arms through the holes. That’s something I had seen men do for women, but I had never done it before. It made me feel grown up and gracious.

“That’s a neat idea,” I offered. “I know my Dad’s told me about Fitzgerald. He even lent me Tender is the Night last year. He said it was one of the greatest American novels ever written. But I haven’t read it yet.”

“Oh, start with Gatsby. You’re going to be so far ahead by the time you start University. Cynthia. It’s Cynthia, right?”

“Yeah, Cynthia.”

She zipped up the parka and started to sling her purse and book bag over her shoulder. I wanted to detain her a bit longer. I liked talking to her about books, about O’Neill.

“What did you think of Mr. O’Neill’s impersonations of actors? He’s funny, isn’t he? He does that hilarious Dick Van Dyke, falling all over himself.”

“He’s a scream.  I can’t believe you’re at Malvern.”

“When did you grad?”

“Four years ago. Now I’m in third year at U of T.” There was a lull in the conversation.  “Well, nice meeting you Cynthia. Don’t forget – Great Gatsby, Nick Carraway the unreliable narrator. You’re going to ace his class.”

We had dinner about an hour after Denise left, and I didn’t mention her nor did Dad.  I don’t think Carl or Barbara, my brother and sister, even knew she had come. They’d been out all afternoon. And my mother had been sewing in a back room of the house. She hadn’t heard the doorbell or Denise leaving.

The next day was Sunday, and I finished Catcher while lying in bed curled up toward the big window next to my bed. A very weak sun was breaking through the cloud cover and there was the drip drip drip of thaw season.  God, what a fantastic book, I thought. I have to get Gatsby and start reading it. If I have a bunch read by tomorrow, I can mention it during English period.

I went into the kitchen in my bathrobe, looking for Dad. I am pretty sure I had seen Gatsby on his shelves during one of my secret visits, and I knew he’d be happy to lend a copy “for my edification.”  The exceptions were his rare books and first editions, and he had a few.  If he were at home, I would ask him innocently if he had a copy I could borrow.

My mother was sitting at the kitchen table, editing a manuscript. She always worked with an ashtray at her elbow, and a row of different pencils and pens in a wooden tray at the other elbow.  She looked up when I came in, her face wreathed in smoke.

“Good sleep?”

“Yes, but I’ve been awake for ages, reading. Is Dad around?”

“No, he’s gone to play tennis with Hank, Riva, and Daniel.” My mother wasn’t sporty, but my Dad loved tennis and had several friends from grad school who liked to play, sometimes doubles.  I always cringed a little when he came back from a game still wearing his tennis clothes because seeing his thin shanks and the sweaty terry cloth headband embarrassed me.

“When will he be home?”

“Oh probably not for hours.”

My Mom didn’t ask why I wanted to know. My sense was that she was essentially uninterested in me. Sure, she loved me, but she was usually preoccupied with one thing or another, so she didn’t ask questions about what I was thinking or doing.  For example, she might have looked me in the eye and said, “Why do you want your Dad? Is there something I can do?”  But so it goes. You can’t choose your parents.

I wandered out of the kitchen. I had gotten into my head that I must have The Great Gatsby NOW.  Usually I executed my visits to Dad’s study when there was nobody home but me. Today, I would have to venture it with Mom in the house. As long as I walked softly so she didn’t hear steps above, I should be okay.  After all, she was in the kitchen on the main floor immersed in editing, so it was highly unlikely.

I climbed the stairs stealthily and made a beeline over to the bookshelves, immediately spotting the Fitzgerald book I was after. After I picked it carefully off the shelf, and started to walk back to the stairs, a white object lying on the arm of the couch caught my eye.  I bent over to look at it more closely.  It was a plastic or rubber whitish-yellowish tube, but to call it a tube was wrong because it wasn’t stiff like a tube of toothpaste, but more like balloon material or sausage casing. It was transparent, made of super thin, almost transparent material, with a thicker rim at the opening that reminded me of the blow-end of a balloon. The rim was more yellow than white, whereas the bottom of the tube was more white than yellow.  This thing lay sort of collapsed on the purple velvet, twisted up, and there was some whitish liquid or cream contained mostly at the end of the tube, but some smeared inside the rest of it.  The tube was around six inches long, with a knot about one third of the way down, as if to seal the glue or viscous stuff down at one end.

What could this thing be? At first I wondered if it was a variety of book glue that perhaps came packaged in plastic tubes. Maybe my father had been repairing books. I know that he had done this at one time. It had been a hobby of his to repair old books, sometimes gluing bindings back on. He used to do this on Sunday mornings before he got so busy with teaching.  When the mind has nothing to go on, no previous experience with a new object, it tries to slot the new item into the inventory of what it already knows. With that item slotted, I forgot all about it and went back to my bed to immerse myself in the world of the Buchanans.

I was a great hit with Mr. O’Neill because I was able to discuss Nick Carraway with him. And I got an A plus in that class.

The following year in Grade 12 I had sex for the first time.  It wasn’t that spectacular, to be honest. I felt okay about the guy, Martin.  We were really just friends, not boyfriend and girlfriend. And we both sort of wanted to get it over with. He was nice and gentle, but it was definitely anti-climactic.  We did it in his parent’s basement rec room while they were out at a party.  Martin, after lying on top of me for a while, leaned over and whispered into my ear.

“I’m going to pull out now, okay?”

“Sure, I guess so.” I’m not sure why he told me that, but I guess he just didn’t want to make any sudden moves. We were both scared as two jack rabbits. In retrospect, I am surprised he was able to ejaculate.  In the half-light of the rec room, I watched him roll the condom off of his smallish, semi-erect penis. It looked so pink and babyish and vulnerable, lying against his white thigh.  He rolled the condom down his penis so carefully, so methodically, like ladies rolled their nylons off their legs in the old black and white movies.  Then he took the condom with some white stuff caught at one end, and tied a knot near the top.

“Why are you doing that?” I asked, pulling the fake fur blanket up over my breasts, shyly.

Martin looked embarrassed. “Well, I heard that you’re supposed to so that so the jism doesn’t spill out and make a mess.”

“Jism?” I laughed. Martin looked at me and smiled. He put the used condom on the arm of the hide-a-bed that we were lying on. I looked over at it lying there, and then I realized. Oh! So that’s what it was, in Dad’s study. That’s it.

I felt a bit sick then, and wanted to leave Martin’s place quickly. I dressed and insisted on walking home alone. “Cynthia, what did I do to upset you? Please tell me!” He pleaded with me.

“Really truly, it’s not you, Martin. It’s just something else and I’d tell you except it’s private.”

I’d like to say that something happened after that, but it didn’t. The next year, I graduated and soon after that I got a place at Queen’s in Kingston, where I started in English but switched pretty quickly to some business courses and then went straight through to get an MBA.  My Dad and Mum split up a year after I left home and sold the house.

I haven’t seen my Dad much since I moved out so many years ago. I see Mum regularly; she’s very close to my son. But it seems that when my Dad and I get together, I start remembering that thing and the events surrounding it, even though I am 55 now and it’s almost 40 years since the “whitish object” on the arm of the  couch caught my eye.  The remembering fills me with both revulsion and yearning. When I am with him, I am always on the verge of saying, no of screaming, “How could you? Why didn’t you love me? Why couldn’t you have organized your love properly? Pay attention to me, not your students! Make love to your wife, not Denise! She was only four years older than I was—how could you?”

Now that I haven’t said anything for this long, it’s pretty much impossible to introduce it into the conversation normally. “Oh by the way, Dad, why was there a used condom on the purple velvet couch in April of 1974?”  I wasn’t supposed to be in his study in the first place. How would I explain it? And part of me hopes there really could be tubes of glue that look like used condoms.

The whole thing is just so unsettling I tend to put it out of my mind, and then before you know it, another year has gone by.

 

 

Tribe

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This is the story of how I became a drunk and found a tribe. My memory often fails me, so I have quilted over gaps with scrappy fictions, not completely accurate, but not without truth, either.

I was a sweet, reckless 11-year-old, still taking ballet lessons on Saturday mornings. Our instructor—upright, proper, wearing a pencil wool skirt—told us in her English accent not to hold our fingers “like the bunches of bananahs in Lob-ee-laws.”  I wore the garb of the innocent—pink tights, black leotard, hair in a bun. I was perfect, chaste. I had hankerings then for certain clothes, just like 11-year-old girls do today, but my coveting now seems odd and historical. For example, I yearned for a floor length nightgown sewn from a particular Butterick pattern in lavender viyella. And I wanted a kilt, a real kilt.

I often passed the store on Yonge Street and stood in front of the window, pining for one of the kilts worn by the chalky mannequins. You could order a kilt from one of the many tartans on huge bolts at the back of the store—cut to your measurements. How did they make the pleats, I wondered?  The idea that I should have my own kilt became an obsession.  Did that desire pull me precisely because I did not belong to a tribe? Strangely, my family didn’t feel like my tribe; there was a sense of “every man for himself” with us.  But here I could choose my own tartan, my own clan. . . I could pretend to be Scottish.  I could belong.

My mother was agreeable. Perhaps she thought it quaint that I wanted a kilt.  It must have been very expensive to have a kilt custom made in 1969. We didn’t have much money, but my mother tried to give us what we wanted, within reason. “We’ll find the money,” she would say, and she did.  I chose a small red plaid, the MacAulay modern red, and the Scottish lady measured me up with her long yellow tape, marking numbers on a scrap of brown paper.  I waited impatiently for several weeks, imagining how the quilt would look and feel.  I had a tendency then to fetishize objects. If only I had that thing, my life would be perfect.

One Saturday morning we went to fetch it. That lady’s broad freckled hands wrapped the skirt around my neat, trim body, expertly fastened the kilt pin onto the outer apron, checked the waist, stood me back from her appraising eye, and commented in her brogue that I looked “bonnie.”  I loved the way the skirt swung around my thighs just slightly, the mechanical whirl of the crisp pleats—the big silver pin that I could put in myself—higher if I wanted some of my leg to show. There is something lovely and innocent about a slender 12-year old girl wearing a kilt, bare leg in the fall, black tights in the winter.  You might expect her to raise her arms in a highland fling.  She looks as if she belongs.

* * *

I try to imagine how it all came down to vomit on the kilt and all over the bathroom floor, my sisters both dabbing at me with warm wet cloths, quickly cleaning me up and putting me to bed so our mother wouldn’t know. Perhaps we started by pouring small amounts of wine from corked bottles in the kitchen. We might have sat around the kitchen table with coffee cups half full of too-sweet sherry. But my memory also keeps tugging at the old refrain, “come alive for a dollar five.” That was the joke we used to make later about the cheap rotgut wine “Old Niagara” that kept the rummies fueled. I remembered the old men slumped against the wall of the Silver Dollar tavern when I walked Spadina, paper bags concealing identical green glass bottles lying beside each ragdoll body.

I come up from the abyss of memory with a wry smile. It’s no wonder you can’t remember, can’t put the details together, you killed your brain cells, you pickled them with alcohol. I once asked a chemist acquaintance if he thought my memory loss was from frequent LSD trips while my mind was tender, still developing. “No, LSD is likely not the culprit. That’s the cleanest drug around—more likely it was the alcohol.”

We got tipsy, the three of us, light-dark-redhead, but it was too much sweet stuff my first time drinking. We probably laughed, acted giddy and silly as sisters do. Felt the thrill of being bad. But before the sweet sickness came over my gut, I felt the first stirrings we alcoholics get—that deep gut-warmth. That halo of euphoria that crosses us over into a land of freedom, power, luxury—the velvet couch of glory. Give it to me again and again!

So even though I scrambled up the stairs two at a time, my gut heaving, to retch in the toilet, partly missing and getting the sherry-smelling chunks of vomit on my new kilt, I was still shaken, seduced by that blood-warming pleasure. Even if I woke the next morning feeling black-wasted, tongue sour, I still wanted to go back to that land soon, to loll on that velvet couch again.

There was a problem with empty bottles, which makes me think we had somehow gotten our own booze, not purloined small amounts of our mother’s. Come alive for a dollar five . . . indeed!

* * *

The kilt smelled of my vomit after that, and so I wore it less than you would think a girl would wear a new kilt she was so excited to get. “Why don’t you wear your new kilt?” my mom would ask. “Don’t want to,” I mumbled.

But really what I wanted to say, I imagine, was that it smells vile now, the smell reminds me of my first drunk, which was horrifying because it felt wretched to get sick but it felt wonderful to get drunk. So wonderful that I am going to find a way to do it again, soon. I stuffed the kilt into a plastic bag at the back of my closet.

* * *

Latvia is a smallish Balkan country, the home of Michael P’s mother. I wanted to ask Michael about the Latvian quilt I puked over in his basement all those years ago—what were the colours, what was the fabric? Who made it? But then I remember Michael died of AIDS in 1989. Michael’s tribe is now the tribe of the dead—all those beautiful young men who died that decade and beyond. The faded quilt I wasn’t sure about, but we always joked about it, calling it the “family heirloom.” We would cuddle under it—teenage boys and girls in Michael’s basement room, our hub. We nestled together, legs sprawled over legs, arms around each other, drinking, laughing, feeling the incipient sexual thrill for one another, the thrill of being so close with hormones bubbling. One night we were all gathered there, my first time drinking tequila. Lime wedges, salt shaker, the iconic worm in the bottle. Michael lined up the shots, the shaker, the slices of lime on the edge of his candle table, a slab of wood holding dozens of candles in wine bottles. The dripping wax formed stalactite formations we loved to pick at, rolling warm wax in our hands and creating new shapes.

The candle glow lit our young pimply faces as Michael prepped the shots and passed them round. The taste was medicinal burn, but the feeling was flooding gorgeous warmth, an invitation to the couch of glory.  After several shots, I felt my gut roiling, and it all came up again on the quilt.   I suffered shame and guilt from ruining that heirloom, staining it and souring it so Michael would never use it again.  Michael is dead now. But he was Latvian, he was gay, he had two loving tribes. I like to think he basked in their tribal warmth when he was alive.

My contemporaries were not my tribe. Sure, they partied, they drank, but I started to see I approached drinking differently from them. I had to hide, elaborately, the machinations to get another drink, to keep going when everyone else had enough. I had to keep going until I was curled fetus-like, comatose, on the velvet couch.

* * *

Memory, please help me excavate the first AA meeting I attended.  Likely it was held in a church basement somewhere in Toronto. A large room with scarred tables on metal legs laid with 12-step literature on one end and a huge coffee urn and cookies at the other. A tower of Styrofoam cups and those leaf-shaped maple-creme sandwiches in plastic trays, straight from the package. A cloud of cigarette smoke striating the room. Chairs set in front of a podium. All old men but perhaps two faded washed-up ancient women with bad lipstick. This is not for me. Not my tribe. I am so different. I am young and smart.

* * *

We’d had some wine for dinner but the bottle was empty, and we lay in bed, my husband and I, talking, arguing. I was agitated—I needed more booze. This was becoming a grating need. Not so bad when I hadn’t had a drink for a few days. But when I started, the pull was tremendous, and I couldn’t fight it.  I went up to the kitchen on some excuse and poured a coffee mug half full of cooking sherry I found in the cupboard. But before I took it back down to bed, I took several big slugs. I drank more than my share of wine at dinner, and now I was increasingly slurry in my words and actions. As I got into bed, and he smelled the sherry in my cup, I could see the disgust in his face. He took the cup and flung it against our bedroom wall. I remember the drip, drip of it down the wall, and the stain it left there, even after scrubbing.  You were not of my tribe, husband, you who could nurse a Guinness for hours. You could not understand the addict’s yearning beyond reason.  But who, then, was my tribe? Not other drunks, they were old and washed up.  But not non-drunks either. Not the Scottish or the Latvians. Not the gays, not ballet girls—I had quit dance after being told I didn’t really have the body to make it as a ballerina.

* * *

I remember starting a hand quilting class in my early twenties. Quilting was another yearning—I longed to create those perfect squares and sew them all together. To make something great out of small goods. I only completed one square when alcohol—my then lover—got in the way of my relationship to quilting.  Alcohol was my primary relationship in those days; none other stood a chance.

I have been sober 30 years now, but some days I still feel like an emotional drunk careening through life.  Recently I took up my love affair with quilting. This time, with focus and forgiveness and a Pfaff Ambition sewing machine. This time, I started slow, piecing fabric, watching YouTube videos over and over. Pause and sew, play and sew. The plump woman with infinite patience on the video, sewing, showing. Laughing at herself, sewing, showing. Talking us through the techniques, the tricks.  Always a beautiful finished quilt hanging behind her. And then the women in the sewing machine store, the fabric stores, the quilting stores. Patient, full of information, encouragement, tales of experience, wry compassion for the mistakes. So I would try again, laughing at myself for cutting wrong, sewing wrong, taking out stitches, not once, but three times. Patience growing like a little bud inside me.  Oh you quilters, all you women out there—are you my tribe? Is this how I finally learn patience?

These are women I once would have scorned—too podgy, domestic, uninteresting, unintellectual. They care about fabric, for God’s sake, and quarter inch seams! I cared about building skillful arguments, refuting claims, excelling in academia. But now that stuff seems arid.

Free motion quilting got into my soul when I first tried it. After struggling for an hour to put the new foot on my machine, I took off with the freedom of it. Flying around the fabric in huge loop-de-loops, great flowers, words, lines, circles, hearts grew out of me like thread songs. My whole body moved with the shapes and the orange thread spun out, making my mark. It was like the poetry that sometimes runs through me. I am just the container now, for the great spinning quilt goddess who speaks through me.  Oh, is this my tribe, then? This is my tribe. I can’t wait to tell another quilter about it, to share that feeling of stepping off a cliff into free motion quilting.  Sometimes I worry it feels a bit too much like being drunk, that crazy whoop-de-whoo feeling. Like lolling, once again, on the velvet couch of glory. But I reassure myself: There is no hangover, no shame. Just a beautiful imperfect quilt at the end that I will give to somebody I love. Perhaps to you.

Memoir and sketches by Madeline Walker.

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Cones and Bottles

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The evening sky—hot, curdled, yellow—sat heavy on the balconies of 522 Wishart. A few people lingered in deck chairs with drinks, some with cigarettes, some with joints. Angela was one of those.  She would have to go in soon, though, because the sounds from Hell family, one floor below, were making her prickle with rage.  First, the small girl, perhaps four or five, “Mom, Mom, Mom, Mom, can I have more ice-cream? Mom, Mom, Mom, Mom,” the incessant whine. Then the presumed father—“shut the fuck up, Ape” (short for April?). Then a pitch perfect response from the mother—“stop fucking swearing at her!” and this would rise to a crescendo, with the kid finally running out onto the balcony, screaming, and the two parents inside screaming at each other.  Angela could see the little “Ape” now, a bird’s eye view, her fat ice-cream painted hands clutching the metal rails, and her pigtails quivering as she howled.

Angela wanted to phone somebody. Who? Social services? What’s the crime? Emotional abuse? Yes! That’s real. She had suffered it too. Would this April grow up to be like her, one of the walking wounded?  Probably. In the meantime, she went into her apartment and phoned the superintendent of the building for the fourth time this week. Left another voicemail. Could she get this Hell family evicted? They had been disturbing her since they moved in six weeks ago.

Ape seemed a little bit like her as a child, she surmised. The product of a fucked-up couple.  Okay, if your parents don’t even like each other, find every opportunity to criticize and wail on each other—why do they stay together? To torture their offspring?  Angela’s first memories were a fuzzy collage: She watches from a playpen in a corner of the kitchen as her parents scream at each other, their red faces just inches apart. Or another one—she is in her crib watching her father fuck her mother roughly, her mother pummels his chest, trying to buck him off her as he thrusts into her over and over, the puckered scars on his lean white buttocks flexing in ghastly rhythm.

On her father’s tenth Halloween, somebody thought it would be funny to light the string of Big Tom Thumbs hanging out of his ass pocket. Hilarious. A few skin grafts later, her Dad’s left butt cheek looked eerily like a deformed face, the rough scar pattern resembling eyes, nose, and mouth. And when, from between the crib slats, she watched her parents fuck, which was, unfortunately, too often, that butt-face looked like it was leering at her, mouthing obscenities.

Jesus, thought Angela, I have to stop this nonsense.  Going back to those memories always spelled trouble. And this little Ape was uncovering all kinds of crappy dregs from the past.

Some days had passed, and then the unthinkable happened. The couple from Hell invited Angela for dinner.  There was a knock on the door that evening—it was Friday.  Angela got up from the couch where she was parked for the evening with Nurse Jackie on the flat-screen, one joint, and a 142 gram bag of New York Cheddar chips, her end-of-the-week treat. Angela was the kind of person who precisely doled out her medicine: ten cigs a day went into the silver cigarette case, boxed wine (she alternated white and red) measured each evening, marijuana divided over the month, small bags of chips purchased by the case from Costco and stored in the linen closet.

“Hi, I’m Edie, below you, 304?” The fat thirtyish woman stood before her in all her slovenly glory.  The hair, purple dye washed out to a silver violet at the straw tips, was piled up in a thick and greasy coil on top of her head.  Her arms were thick and dimpled, popping out of her tight tank top and glistening with sweat. Edie had a dark shadow above her upper lip.  The purple hair, the incipient moustache, distracted Angie from looking into the guarded eyes.

“Hi Edie. Angela” she stuck out her hand, but then realized it was covered with the oily salt from the chips she had been munching when the knock came. She wiped her hands on the back of her jean shorts and tried again. Edie’s hand was clammy and reticent in hers.

“Hey sorry to bother you, but Hen and me wanted you to come for dinner tomorrow, if you’re free that is. Just burgers on the barbie. You might have seen—we got a little barbecue this week.
“No, I hadn’t noticed. I don’t usually look at your balcony.”

“Oh, no, I didn’t mean to say you were spying. Except somebody’s been calling the Super about the noise, and I wondered if it was you. Peace offering,” she laughed nervously, pulling at her cotton batik skirt. The elasticized waist bunched under her gut: a stripe of striated white flesh between the skirt and tight tank. A rhinestone stud protruded from the cavernous navel.  Angela felt herself contract in revulsion. Could she actually smell the rotten-cheese odour of an infected piercing, or was it her imagination?

“Oh, sorry, but the noise was driving me crazy.  No hard feelings, I hope. Sure, I can come to dinner. Can I bring anything?”

“Oh just yourself. We’ll have plenty of everything.”

“Hen – is that your husband?”

“We’re not married, but yeah, Hen is short for Hendrix. His parents named him after Jimi Hendrix. Can you believe it? Like they had a death wish for him or something.”

No rejoinder came to mind, so Angela smiled unconvincingly and started to shut the door. She was anxious to get back to the solitary pleasures of the evening, and this Edie was starting to irritate her.  “What time?” she asked just as the door eclipsed Edie’s face.

“Let’s say six?”

“See you,” said Angela to the last sliver of cheek before the door clicked shut.

Saturday at six, Angela stood in front of 304 with a six-pack of beer in one hand and a bouquet of cut-price flowers wrapped in cellophane grasped in the other. She leaned over and knocked on the door with her head, then smiled at her cleverness.

Angela heard Edie yelling from within. “Ape, get the door.”

The door opened slowly, and the little girl stood stolidly before her, holding the doorknob and a grape Mr. Freezie in the other hand, a purple stain around her lips. She wore, like her mother had yesterday, an elasticized skirt and tight tank. And like Mum, her fat bulged from between them. The only difference was that her fat was young and unblemished. No piercings around the navel, yet.

Saying not a word, Ape looked at Angela and then started sucking on the Freezie.  “What are you doing, Ape? Aren’t you inviting her in?” yelled Edie again from the kitchen.

Ape stepped back to indicate Angela should come in, but she stayed mute, making sucking noises and slamming the door loudly. That was another irritation for Angela. The slamming door from underneath her, at all hours.

She laid the beer and flowers down on a chair near the door.  “Hey,” she said, sotto voice to Ape. “Don’t slam the door, Ape. Shut it gently, like this.” She opened the door again and demonstrated a soft close for the little girl who stood as if dumbstruck, betraying not a shred of comprehension as she watched this adult talk to her quietly.

Edie came out of the kitchen with a plastic plate piled with frozen hamburger patties and hotdogs.  “I see you’ve met Ape,” she smiled. “C’mon in.” Angela picked up the beer and flowers from the chair and held them out to her hostess. “Oh great! Thank you!”

Hen came back from getting beer – now there were 24 plus the six Angie had brought. The three of them sat on the small balcony drinking beer, crowded together in plastic deck chairs, while Hen cooked the food on the little grill and Ape played in the living room with a couple of Barbies. She was eating dry Fruit Loops from a plastic container, occasionally smashing one onto Barbie’s unresponsive lips. Heaps of cereal dust decorated the grimy carpet like tiny insect mounds in pastel colours.

At one point, as she carefully negotiated her sawdust hamburger, Angela ventured a question, “So is Ape short for April?”

“Ha, no, actually. That’s a good story,” answered Edie, licking mustard off her pudgy fingers. Angela noticed she had letters inexpertly tattooed on each finger of her left hand, just above the knuckles: P-A-R-T-Y.  “Her real name’s Mariah, you know, after the singer.” And then she interjected a phrase from a Carey song. “Touch my baw-dy, put me on the fl-o-o-o-o-r,” Edie crooned in a scratchy voice, pretending her hot dog was a mic.  “But when she was little and we were trying to toilet train her, she used to shit on the floor, then start throwing it at us. I kid you not. Just like the apes going apeshit in the zoo. So we started calling her Apeshit, then Ape for short.”

Hen chimed in. “She still does it from time to time.”

“No kidding,” responded Angie, her flesh crawling.  She didn’t want to keep that image in her mind—the kid scooping soft turds from the floor and lobbing them at her parents. She imagined the damage done to the last apartment: smelly brown stains on carpets and walls.

Angela looked at the girl through the open balcony door. Now she was messing around with a hot dog, breaking it into pieces before she popped each piece between lips still stained purple from the freezie.

Angie stayed just as long as would be considered polite, then escaped back to her apartment. Later that evening when she heard some muted yelling, she took a Zoplicone to block everything out.

A few days later, Edie was at the door again.  It was Wednesday evening.  “Angela, hey I hate to do this, but I have to go do a night shift at work—they just called me in—and Hen isn’t home. He’ll be home soon though. Can you watch Ape for just half an hour, an hour at the most?”

Angela froze. Seriously? She is seriously asking me to babysit?  Angela had just poured a glass of wine and was one-third of the way into an Ian Rankin novel.

“Don’t you have a regular babysitter?”

“Yeah, but that was at the old apartment, miles away.  I need to find some teenager in the neighbourhood. But in the meantime, do me a favour?” She raised her eyebrows and shoulders in an inquiring leer. Apparently she had washed her hair and was now wearing it loose, showing bleached roots above the purple tresses.

“Okay, just this once, though,” Angie said. Oh, well, she could just read the novel one floor below. Ape was practically comatose, anyways. Edie went off to her night shift at Mac’s Convenience Store, leaving her cel number and Hen’s too.  “Help yourself to anything,” she said. “There’s beer.”

Angela sat gingerly on the couch, placing a thermos containing her ration of white wine on the scratched coffee table and her novel beside her on the cushion.  She looked at Ape, sunk into an armchair watching an episode of “My Little Pony” and slowly licking an ice-cream cone with her grey tongue.  Her bare legs stuck straight out in front of her, nicked and cut, her toenails painted hot pink. She wore only cotton underpants and a Dora the Explorer pajama top.  She hadn’t acknowledged Angela’s presence.

After the episode ended and Ape had crunched the last of the cone, she licked her fingers and announced, “Another one.”

Angela looked up from her book. “Another what?”

Ape continued staring at the screen, watching the animated figures from a cereal commercial strut, fly and, yell. “Another ice cream cone.”

“No,” said Angela in a low firm voice.

“What?” said Ape, finally looking toward this intruder.

“You heard me. No,” replied Angela once more, making eye contact with the girl.

Ape, as if bewitched, looked slack jawed at her neighbour. Rather than asking again, she hauled her small plump body out of the deep armchair and started walking to the kitchen.

Angela unfolded her legs, got up, switched off the television, and followed.

She watched the girl pull a kitchen chair up to the fridge, climb onto it, and yank the freezer door open. As Ape put her hands in to get the big five-litre tub of fudge ripple, Angela came up behind her, grabbed the little paws, pulled them away, and shut the freezer door with a slam.

“You don’t want to turn into an ice-cream cone, do you?”  she said in a censorious voice, lifting the heavy, squirming kid off the chair and onto the floor.

Ape beat at Angie’s legs, yelling “ice-cream, ice-cream, ice-cream!”

“That doesn’t work with me. You’re done with the ice-cream. You look like you’re turning into an ice-cream cone, you little fatty.” Angela grappled to control the octopus limbs thrashing out every which way.

She hadn’t counted on the tenacity of Ape, who was trying to drag the chair once more to the fridge. Angela struggled with the child, finally hauling her out of the kitchen into the living room.  She found herself in the weird position of wrestling this flailing sixty-pound body, trying to pin a strange girl onto a filthy carpet.

Finally, in a moment of revelation, Angela threw up her hands. “Jesus Mary Joseph, have your fucking ice-cream, then! You’re going to turn into a big fat fudge ripple monster cone!” Angela rapidly pulled herself off the kid, returning to her book, her wine, and the couch, while Ape, bawling, staggered into the kitchen where she negotiated the chair, the freezer door, the pail of ice-cream, the scoop, and the cone, with lots of banging. Throughout the process, she keened the anguished cry of the persecuted, a rhythmic, almost mechanical wail.

When Hen arrived about an hour later, his daughter was slowly munching to the bottom of her fourth cone, occasionally pausing for a long, shuddering breath, expelling the remnants of her crying jag. Her Dora p.j. top was streaked with melted fudge ripple, her hands sticky, her eyelids fluttering down, down.

“Wow,” he said, “Ape is in her cups tonight.  Am I supposed to pay you for babysitting?” he asked Angela, who had not moved from the couch for 60 minutes.

“No of course not. What are neighbours for?”

Pitch black deep in the night, Angela was woken by a siren, growing louder, louder, then it seemed to be shrieking right in front of the building. After a time, she fell back into the blue funnel of drugged sleep. She had doubled her Zoplicone intake since Hell family moved in.

The next morning she was in the bathroom with the hair drier going when she heard a loud rapping on the door. Through the peephole she saw Edie in her pajamas, looking distressed.

She opened the door. “What’s up?”

Edie started in a low controlled voice, filled with venom. “What did you tell my daughter last night, you warped fuck? Told her she would turn into an ice-cream cone? What kind of mean fuck are you?”  Edie pushed her mascara-streaked face into the doorway in a threatening gesture.

Angela noticed the strong smell of sweat and the fetor of decaying teeth, and she started to back away. Mute, impassive, she started to slowly push the door shut, preventing Edie from advancing.

“Did you hear the siren last night, you bitch? That was your doing.  You gave her a fucking nightmare.  She woke up grabbing her stomach and wouldn’t stop screaming so we had to call 9-1-1. She thought she was turning into an ice-cream cone, for fuck’s sake. Where do you get off telling her that shit?”  She was yelling now, and 402 had opened his door to see what was going on.

Angela closed the door on Edie’s raging face and locked it. She went back to finish styling her hair. Serves the Apeshit right. The greedy little shit.  And her moron parents. Some people!  Letting their kids run the show.

That night she took another Zoplicone. Although she had been careful in dosing her New York Cheddar chips, her pot, her wine, and her cigarettes, the sleeping medication was harder to control.  The desire to plunge into that deep blue-black hole was powerful. She dreamed. An old memory had surfaced. She was turning into a bottle of chocolate milk, just as her father had predicted.  “You drink so much of this stuff, you’re going to turn into a bottle of it,” he would tell her often, fixing her another one. Hershey’s black syrup swirling into the white. Her chosen elixir.  In the dream, Angie’s legs were transforming into cold glass, her head became a big rubber teat and inside, she felt the chilly swish of brown milk coursing through the tomb of her body. She woke with a start, mid-yell, her heart pounding.

At 7 a.m. Angie called in sick. She made a pot of strong coffee and took a cup to the balcony, where she sat in her lounge chair, wrapped in a fleece blanket, and lit her Friday night joint 12 hours early.  As she watched the trees bucking in the strong wind, she wrapped the fleece more tightly around her shoulders.  Then she cried. She cried for Mariah, for Angela, for April, for Apeshit, for Ape, for all the girls turning into cones and bottles, for all the lost little girls.