Broadside #34 (Spring 2014 / 14.8)
I Named the Stars for You
The Huguenot cemetery where we kissed for the first time. Crouched in the shade of a broken gravestone, I brushed the hair from in front of your eyes and let our lips meet. Packed hard, the ground felt cold through the knees of my trousers and your skin had a bluish hue, a shade between the clear sky and the thin striped color of my school scarf. “Many a tear has to fall, but it’s all in the game…” I sang silent as the buses passed on their way out of town. House sparrows picked frozen seed from the ground, and your cheek next to mine threatened to solidify into a fleshy ice.
Frozen pizza. Crinkled plastic. Birdseye’s best. Yours was the first house I ever knew with a microwave. My old lady wouldn’t have one for fear of the radiation. Chernobyl infiltrated the milk we drank in our tea. “Didn’t the good Lord give us plenty of fossil fuel for us not to be bothering with all those fission things,” she’d say, when the Old Man suggested one of the new-style ovens for convenience. The sauce under the melted cheese was the same shade as your hair, and when I sucked the skin of your neck in the dark of the tennis club changing room I smelled the tomatoes and garlic rising from your cold and damp body.
Bitten to the quick. Staked to the crucifix, the plaid lining of your school coat spread under your stricken body. In the fridge, a bottle of cheap Chianti in wicker, a future candleholder. The streetlights caught the falling rain as it hammered into the soft earth in front of the tennis courts. The key I stole from the woman who minded it for the club, and I had the shoe repair fellow in Donnybrook village make a copy. From the lane leading to the entrance we could see all the way to the back rooms of your house, and your mother knitting rosaries and booties for the poor children in country orphanages.
You told me how she beat the dog, the time it peed on the sitting room carpet. How she hoisted the poor creature by the scruff of the neck and went at its shivering body with the hairbrush. A compassionate, lovely woman, that’s how the parish priest thinks of her. Isn’t it strange how the way people behave when the doors are locked and the curtains drawn rarely resembles the act they put on in public? All those fights you had with your mother, the criticism she showered you with, and the snide remarks about how you’d end up on the street if you didn’t watch out. A hard woman. No wonder you want to find your birth mother.
Above us, the constellations spread out, and the moon slid behind the great horse chestnuts. Simple arithmetic, you and me equal happiness. The difficulty arose when your mother asked about my plans for the future. As if at nineteen I had even a vague comprehension of what the hell I wanted to do with my life. Walk the streets of Dublin with you, touch your pale skin under moonlight, kiss your russet curls as the frost glinted on tree-limbs and muddy puddles.
Sinners both, we burned our bridges and wrecked our love with petty disagreements and disgruntled parents. Those winter walks in dark, wet streets, the going-home traffic and the bitter words. Once, on Temple Road we watched a couple steam up car windows; the mumbled rutting sending us away into awkwardness and regret. Those close encounters reminders of our own mischief, the pushing of the envelope to the very edge of reason. We walked home along by Palmerston Park, a wedge of swans bound for the coast silhouetted against the starless sky, and your small sigh every time my hand squeezed.
As the frosted leaves crunched beneath our feet I named the stars for you: Betelgeuse, Rigel, Bellatrix, Mintaka, Alnilam, Alnitak. A sacred litany of an ancient religion, the words thick-tongued and guttural, your eyes glistened wet with love, or was it cold? In your face I recognized the desperation of your need, how you longed to fly the nets of your mother’s curses. I hugged you close and mumbled again the names of stars into your hair: Mair al Saif, Saiph, Meissa, Tabit and Thabit. High over us the named stars sparked in the black night.
Memory and love and truth and deception play important parts in what I write. I’ve been home in Dublin this past week and went to the launch of the Stinging Fly Magazine’s special flash fiction issue. This was the first such event I’ve attended in my hometown and I was amazed at the richness of the pieces that were read at the Irish Writers’ Centre. June Caldwell, a marvelously inventive Irish writer, read a piece about her dead brother and before she read she explained a bit about where the story she was to read came from, and even though that’s not something I ever do, in terms of telling where my writing is rooted, I couldn’t help but admire the rich narrative she unfolded in her preamble, which was as entertaining as most fiction I’ve read. This piece here is a flash of disjointed memories and imagined moments, truth and fiction mixed together in a manner that can’t be untangled by anyone except myself. This “seeding” of truth in fiction is something I love to do, to put in my stories these details and events that only I can recognize, or if not only me, at least no more than one other person. In a way, I see this as a bit of a magic trick, and there’s always an inherent disappointment when a magician reveals how a trick is done. That’s why I refuse to frontload my stories with any form of explanation, preferring them to stand on their own as narrative moments told. Sure, I enjoyed the revelations about the story I heard the other night in the Writers’ Centre, but I wonder if I’d have lost any of the story had I not been privileged to hear the backstory?