Over-the-top love is easy to possess. One slim aspect of a beloved is enough to make my heart edematous. With Bill Clare, it was the aimless way his wrists hung. With the dog next door, it’s the gracious swirls of hair on either side of his butt.
Don’t tell me edematous is the wrong word, that it only means something nasty like an old woman’s ankles. I have aunts with ankles as wide as Francine’s thighs, ankles poured into black shoes until the leather groans. Imagine hearing shoes cry.
The aunts are sofa women. They fill their clothes like cushions and are from the time before people were beautiful.
Francine and I will never grow old like that. We will never fill a couch together. Francine hates it if I touch her, even by accident. It made her furious when my parents called her an actress, but now she relishes the description. She moves around our house as though there is always a camera on her.
Sitting on her bed, she says let me clutch you to my bosom, a word we both find hilarious. Laughing, I lean into her, and she kicks me away with the heels of her feet, her toes too precious to touch me.
There is nothing similar between a swollen heart and swollen ankles. The aunts’ ankles may burst one day and blow up their pained shoes, while a heart can swell indefinitely.
The smart-in-a-special-way person, which I suspect I am, knows there is a Greek word that means swelling. The smartly creative person, which I may or may not be, knows that words are meant to be thrown in the air, to land willy-nilly. A poet knows this to be true.
We have a slick cat with a mustache like Adolf Hitler’s. Francine says I’m crazy to say Adolf Hitler and I should call him Charlie Chaplin but I don’t like Charlie Chaplin. It hurts me to watch him. I don’t like Hitler either, but he is supposed to be ugly. That’s why Emile’s mustache is so fetching because he is no ugly monster.
Francine says I’m crazy. She says I think Hitler is cute. That’s how she twists words. She’s proud of her written-on-white-paper thoughts, one line at a time, while I’m capable of thoughts that slip one behind another. I am exceptionally skilled at hyphenation.
When you love an animal, words like little gray pinhead are no insult. Edematous love turns words inside out. Words that exist in straight lines on paper are too puny.
My sister has never known true love. She and her friends say boy sarcastically as though they are an inferior species.
Like, “Did you see that boy standing near us at Cook’s Counter? He was hypnotized by Lydia.”
“But he’s got red hair!”
Does that boy’s mother know girls like Lydia and my sister are laughing at her son’s hair? Maybe she has red hair. Or her husband does. Did she forget about that red hair once she was in love?
My mother calls my father Honey which drives me up and over the wall. Honey. So lazy and imprecise. If a strange man happened to enter our house at dinner time, would he be called “Honey,” too?
Don’t be lulled into thinking that Hitler’s mustache or red hair will make an object of love soft in your arms. A cat’s body is like origami. It’s difficult to discern the flesh from the pleated furry folds. Even their eyes are Asian-shaped. When I tried to find what I believed to be Emile’s penis, he hissed and spat, his limbs and tail stretched frantically.
Francine and I have read about Florence Nightingale and know about blood poisoning during the Crimean War, words I enjoy pronouncing in my head. When a tiny red line crept away from a puffy bite Emile left on my hand, I had to show my mother who took me to the doctor. Blameless Emile had to sleep in the basement for a week.
It is easy to love mute, velvet-skinned things that walk on your possessions like it’s no big deal. It’s better if they are less in love with you than you are with them. Needy animals are irritating, like small crying kids who have green mucus on their faces. Who wants to pick up a mucus-faced kid in order to comfort him? Not me.
I have kissed a dead man. Girls shriek when I tell them. My grandfather died in the hospital and I kissed his forehead. Nobody asked me too, but it was an opportunity I didn’t want to miss, frightening and rare. There was a peculiar sponginess to his forehead that I believe was the dead part. If he had been alive, I wouldn’t have felt it because it would still have belonged to him.
I enjoyed embarrassing my parents in this way. Francine had stayed home. She said hospitals scared her but she was too lazy to care about our grandfather.
I can make myself cry if I imagine holding a dead Emile in my arms. At first, the crying feels good. It fills my chest with importance while drowning out the sound of a Saturday afternoon lawn mower and my father watching golf on TV. Alone in my room, holding an imaginary dead cat, the thin sound of the golf announcer is the sound of desolation. Francine and my mother aren’t home. Dust hangs diagonally across my room. Without them in the house, the split-level house is too sunny.
When they come home, Francine’s nose is red and my mother’s lips are hidden. This means they fought in the car. I am known for not fighting with my mother. I wait at the open door to my sister’s bedroom. She’s wrapped herself away from me in her dark green blanket. I have a blue one. Francine, can I come in? She beckons to me. She tells me bull semen is blue and that’s why there’s a blueish tinge to our skim milk. I stop drinking milk and irritate my mother forever.
I am sitting on the bench in front of Dunkin’ Donuts, watching cars turn left from busy Broad Street, onto Clearview Terrace, which is no terrace but leads to endless cul-de-sacs. The high school cars used to turn swiftly, swerving for the Dunkin' Donuts audience. But now they turn too slowly, in an exaggerated manner, because two kids were hit last year, although they didn’t die.
One of them, Maggie Mintzer, had to wear a contraption with spikes attached to her head and neck. It was called a halo, as if the name could make it less horrifying. Everyone agreed it was too distracting and she cried when her mother came to take her home for the rest of the school year. After the summer, she returned and pretended to be carefree. She wore thin shirts without a bra but even her breasts seemed sad.
If you’re not a little kid or a character in a book, suffering is unappealing, particularly to boys. Suffering is the opposite of sexy.
I’m waiting for Bill Clare. My beloved. My sister has ruined the word boy for me. I hate the word man even more. I wouldn’t love Bill if he were a man, hairy and disgusting with unnecessary flesh. There is too much unnecessary flesh in this world. Pounds and pounds of it. A man will have a heart attack because of the mounds of unnecessary flesh surrounding his tiny heart.
I used to hate the name Bill because it rhymes with pill. It’s so simple, as though his parents couldn’t bother to think of anything better. Now that name is beautiful to me. Over-the-top love changes everything.
Identical cars lull my eyes. I forget to study the occupants until I am just a girl without purpose sitting on a bench with blobs of dried pigeon shit on either end.
I look up. Bill’s tee-shirt declares he is a Taoist. He’s tall, which is a good thing as it prevents him from seeing me too closely.
“Hey,” I say and he sits next to me, uncaring about the potential contamination from pigeon shit. Boys will be boys. I will carry Francine inside me for the rest of my life.
Bill and I have a lot in common although he’s more interested in the decay of natural things, like forests, oceans, and the small animals that spend most of their lives unseen, under the earth or in the woods.
I don’t think oceans decay but don’t tell him.
Bill is restless.
“I’ve been studying Taoism,” I tell him.
“It’s pronounced with a D,” he says. “Like in dad.”
I find the analogy provocative as I repeat it to myself, tongue touching the roof of my mouth.
“I’m thinking of becoming a Taoist,” I say, pronouncing the word with a T, as in toe.
Bill leans forward, shaking his head. His hair parts in greasy curtains. Bill’s skin is white and smooth with individual whiskers that appear inserted from the outside. Hold still, Bill, his father might have said as he stuck one whisker after another into Bill’s chin, while his mother stood close by telling the father the whiskers are crooked. Bill’s father tells her to mind her own business, she has no idea what she’s talking about.
It’s likely easier for parents to love girls than boys. If I had a teenage son with acne and hairy ankles, I wouldn’t be able to love them. My own skin is immensely smooth. It surprises me in bed at night. When I was younger, I would lick my knees, the taste unfamiliar and interesting.
“You’re not humble enough,” Bill says.
Humble is an old-fashioned word. Like beloved, it’s used in books written centuries ago when over-the-top love was more prevalent because of shorter life spans.
“You and your sister think you’re hot shit.”
My brain is stunned. Francine and I stuffed together on a couch in my beloved’s mind. But Francine has dirty blonde hair, the color itself rebellious and bold. I’m used to my own foreign thoughts. I didn’t know Bill Clare had them as well.
I don’t want to be a Taoist. I don’t want to believe in a natural course of events. I intend to be happy. Bill Clare’s brain may hold foreign thoughts, but he is not humble.
When we’re lab partners, Bill is competitive. If I reach a conclusion more quickly than him, he pretends that he has held himself back as an act of gallantry. I allow him to believe that I believe in his gallantry. But I look forward to being an adult when I can abandon these stupid waste-of-my-time games with boys. Is it any wonder I prefer Emile who is honest to a drawing-blood fault?
I married a male nurse. I never cared for status symbols, but loved the idea of a man who could care for every part of me. But Stewart never had to bathe me or even bring me a cool compress. In real life, a person doesn’t want to do at home what he does all day for money. I assumed his days of handling flesh fractured by disease would keep me immune from future disdain. But these things happen.
I have four children, half of whom love me and two who don’t. The two girls were tender toward one another. Surprised and suspicious, I checked their arms and legs during bath time but never found hyphen marks left by angry fingernails. They are nothing like Francine and me.
I’m on my way to the Caring Community, a senior center two blocks away from my apartment. Inside, it looks poor with damp-looking woodwork. Not a lot of caring is evinced as it’s staffed by seniors. Tai Chi with Chairs is at eleven o’clock. I’ll be home in time to prepare lunch for Francine.
Mr. Chen bows to us before class. I bow back for no other reason than I can. Like everything else, the senior center has more women than men. There are varying states of ability. I like it best when I have the most.
“Harmony lies in accepting the natural order of the universe,” Mr. Chen announces before we begin. I think he says this to encourage us to accept our deterioration. Mr. Chen has a smooth hairlessness that makes him appear vulnerable and I wonder if his wife ever raises her voice to him. It’s impossible to tell how old Asian men are unless they have angry faces. If Francine wasn’t coming, I would stay for lunch after class. The food is awful but sometimes Mr. Chen joins us.
Francine comes weekly for lunch and to criticize my belongings. She’ll tell me to discard the teak tray that reminds me of my mother’s Danish-style kitchenware. Afterwards, I’ll see cracks in the veneer. She chides me for the newspaper I still have delivered. She accuses me of deforestation. But it’s a minor deforestation.
Francine is bizarrely proud that she has only one daughter and one grandchild while I, the squanderer of trees in the Brazilian rain forest, have too many. Breeders, she calls my daughters but says nothing negative about my sons. Despite being boys, boys still matter most to Francine.
I try to smell the container of milk in my refrigerator but my sense of smell is gone. I drink my coffee black while Francine uses too much milk. I enjoy reminding her of the bull semen story. She’ll turn her head, smiling slightly, as though embarrassed by her own cruelty.
I slice the bread while rehearsing my mockery of Mr. Chen in order to entertain Francine. I’ll say he wants us to go gentle into the good night while I wish he would just be inscrutable.
My skin is so dry I’ve cut my finger without feeling it. The common scratches of childhood are now called lacerations and take weeks to heal. The drying of the heart is an element of evolution, like the shrinking of elderly brains. Our desiccated bodies should be slipped into manila envelopes, placed upright in the ground; an underground filing system could serve as a cemetery.
Emile did die in my arms. At the vet’s. In a supposedly antiseptic room with grimy floors. He may have been fifteen. He had lipomas that I forced myself to pet. I owed him that after my futile attempts at molestation. But I had to wave a magazine in his bewildered face when he passed putrid gas.
Francine is late. I don’t want to listen to her complain the bread is dry. I plan to act as though I don’t notice the time she arrives. It doesn’t pay to make her angry.
I’m surrounded by flattened faces in photographs. A river of children. The most important moments, the least remembered.
Did Bill and I dissect a frog together in seventh grade? I accept this may be a fantasy rather than a memory. Bill looks handsome and grownup as he politely offers me the scalpel so I can make the first slice. We both admire my non-girlish braveness. Surprised by the lack of rubbery resistance, I cut too deeply. Bill says I’ve destroyed important matter but I disagree. An odd-shaped gray pea may be the heart. How can something so infinitesimal have meaning?
Where is Francine? I intend to express my anger when she finally arrives.
Can you believe that even a little frog has a tiny hard heart? You are thinking this girl wasn’t smart at all if she thought that is any kind of surprise.
lives in Greenwich Village in New York City. Her short stories have appeared in SNReview and Hamilton Stone Review. She received an honorable mention in the Walker Percy Prize in Short Fiction contest of the New Orleans Review. Jane has an MFA in Creative Writing from Pacific University.