Where I Go
Babies weren’t frightened by her eyes. They didn’t yet know grief. They only saw her mouth, the bare smile it held. There was a baby boy in the shopping cart ahead of her. A little apple-cheeked boy, probably one or so. His curls framed his face, and his hair appeared never to have seen a scissors. The boy sat in the baby seat while his mother placed groceries on the conveyor. Alice’s smile broadened. She raised one hand and wiggled her finger, wavy bug legs, at the child. The little boy crowed with glee. He hid his eyes, initiating a round of peek-a-boo. Alice imitated the gesture. He kicked his legs against the metal basket. He reached his hands out as if to grasp Alice. His mother patted him on the cheek. Timothy Michael, she said. Calm down, sweetie. The boy giggled, and the mother looked at the cart behind hers then. Her face startled when she saw Alice. Come here, baby, the mother said. Come to Mama, and she pulled him out of the seat. She held the child while she finished emptying her cart and didn’t let him turn around.
The brightness in Alice’s eyes went first. Now they were perpetually red-rimmed. Her face went from full and pink to sunken-cheeked. She’d spent all those mornings on her couch, but the tears wouldn’t stop, not even after winter, at last pushed off stage by warm breezes, turned to spring when Cincinnati was loveliest. She’d cried and watched the neighbors pad around in their gardens. They worked their magic planting pansies and hyacinths, and they were happy even when rain came. How happy flowers can make some people. How happy some people are, until things go wrong. She watched them all spring and into summer, and the brightness was gone and day by day the pink washed out and her faced thinned to gaunt. Her legs were sticks like her grandmother’s had been. Toothpicks, Grandmom called them, and Alice knew why.
Her belly grew flat as a teenager’s. Like Twiggy, the skinny, swinging sixties icon, a fashion model and actress. In the last month she no longer needed to wear a bra – she looked practically pre-pubescent, and her mother would notice this first thing. She’d see her and know. Decades of marriage to a Tennessee man, and her mother still thought like an Irish girl from Cork. She knew he was losing his job when he started shrinking. He’s dwindling to bones, she’d said. She knew it months before he got the pink slip, and she’d see the dwindling on Alice now, too. Her daughter who’d been prom queen once. She should think about an acting career, some people said. Did it matter? Everyday she lost more weight, which was nothing compared to what she’d really lost.
Her mother was waiting on the front porch. She wore one of those shifts she’d worn all through Alice’s growing up years, because the dress had pockets and covered her plump shape nicely. She’d worn a shift like this every summer when Alice came home from college. And now Alice wore one because its shapelessness hid her frailty – somewhat. God help her, she was turning into her mother.
The shift smelled of whatever her mother was baking, buttermilk biscuits? It was months between visits now. Months when it used to be weeks. Her mother hugged her too hard at first. Alice couldn’t catch her breath. She’d forgotten how thick the air could be down here. This was probably how fish felt when they were tossed back into the water. She pulled away and placed her hands on her mother’s shoulders. Her mother lifted her daughter’s chin, and her eyes were serious when she spoke. “You need to get your strength back,” she said. “All that time in Cincinnati and you lost your strength.” They walked slowly into the house.
Her room was the same, a yellow duvet over a down comforter on the bed. Her books seemed to all be accounted for and Alice’s eyes came to rest on the book of Celtic goddesses her mother had brought from Cork. She’d read it to Alice when she was small. She read to her in a thick brogue and Alice loved that. Powerful Aine who gave birth to incarnated fairies from her romances with mortal men and Gentle Diana who helps children see and speak with the fairies. She recalled the stories and her mother’s voice, and was glad to hear that voice the last thing that night and the first thing the next morning.
Her body was healthy, if skeletal. It was her mind. She was nearly thirty and weighed less than a hundred pounds. But she had a strong heart. It was her mind.
She sat before a cup of coffee at the kitchen table. Folger’s Instant because it would stimulate her appetite, that’s what her mother told her. Her mother had hung a hummingbird feeder outside the window and they watched the tiny birds drink nectar. She made eggs and toast for her daughter but Alice ate very little. They moved to the porch. It was over ninety degrees, and the air was thick with humidity. The sun was shining on the yard. It was much hotter than Cincinnati, Florida-hot, and she wished she’d packed some tank tops. Two little boys rode bicycles up and down the street, finally parking at the old Bradshaw house. They wiped their sweaty faces and even from a distance Alice could see their beet red cheeks.
The Bradshaws had lived there for years but who knew what had become of Charlotte, silly Charlotte who’d been tricked into eating real cotton, dyed and sugared to look like candy. Alice had been part of it, even though she knew it was mean.
The little boys were back on their bikes now. They gunned their motors with mouth noises. Their mother was standing at their front door waving to them then she waved to Alice, and Alice waved back just to be friendly. And the next thing the woman was calling her sons indoors. It’s almost lunchtime, she told them. Put your bikes away and come in. They went inside and she shut the door.
Alice leaned into her cushioned chair. The air conditioners hummed at all the houses and she should get out of the heat, but she stayed because the afternoon air smelled like roses. Like fresh mown grass and heated up mulch. Nearby a hummingbird winged its way to a feeder and she studied the old Bradshaw place, which had old aluminum siding that looked rusty. The yard was overgrown with weeds and wildflowers. The house looked unkempt as did the street, and the sky was blue above with cloudy white streaks here and there.
Her mother talked about an annulment in the evenings, fingertips tented like a priest’s. This was their pattern. They sat together in the living room, and her mother said Alice needed to fill out the papers. It’s necessary, she said, and she touched Alice’s wrist that was bird-thin. You shouldn’t wait any longer. Alice shook her head no and leaned back in her chair. Look how small her mother was, her little head and petite hands. She talked about an annulment every evening then every morning, too, and now she was holding Alice’s hands as she had done when Alice was young, after having displeased her. She talked about saving Alice’s soul, about divorce, about remarrying someday. Her grip tightened so that the pressure slipped to discomfort. There were mysteries in the Church Alice didn’t appreciate, and Alice nodded in agreement and sometimes said yes, she was right, and her mother held her hands. Her grip tightened more.
They’d split up their belongings. When they got to the stemware Alice shattered a wine glass on the floor on purpose because it felt right. Sean dropped one, too, and before long all the glasses were broken and a neighbor from the level below was knocking and calling, “What’s going on in there?”
Fourth of July weekend they went together to see her aunt. It was time to hear her side. Jo Ann would know how to put it, her mother said. Even if it was a holiday. Alice wore her shift in the car. They drove out past the old cemetery where she’d jumped into a dug grave one night with beer-swigging friends. Past the honky-tonks and music studios where guitar players hoped to make it big. Clouds were forming like boulders. She squinted against the shine of the sun. This city was alive and she hadn’t realized. She’d pinned her hopes on getting out at a young age. She’d left shortly after graduation because Cincinnati offered a job, freedom, but all she’d done was trade one small city for another.
Her mother greeted Jo Ann with a hug. She was smoothing down her dress and talking with her hands. Alice watched her from the car. She didn’t want to walk to her aunt’s front porch. The sisters’ staunch Catholicism made her uneasy, but they could be sweet and tender, too. She wished she could do what her mother and aunt wanted, but she couldn’t.
They’d been married five years. He’d stopped coming home and then she moved out and then they split up their belongings. He was in a band and somehow that was more important to him than anything, anyone. Several friends came to her new-apartment party. They came from her job and from her sewing group, and a few high school friends came all the way from Nashville. Lots of people came, but not her mother, the only one with the power to soothe her. He was gone now. She quit her job and moved home. She’d already forgotten his smile, but not his eyes, not his voice.
Her mother knocked on the car window. The motor was still running to keep the air conditioner on. “Come out,” she said, so Alice did. They walked to the house. You can’t see how important the annulment will be to you one day, they said. One day you’ll see. Alice looked at the statue of Mary on the table. Mary was stepping on the head of a snake.
They walked the neighborhood most mornings, and then they watched soaps. Alice had little to say, but even on the hottest days it was better than staying inside. The kitchen clock made her anxious they way it ticked off every second. They were coming around on Nineteenth Avenue when a bicyclist ran into her. She felt the pain as she went down. She landed on a freshly mown lawn. She lay on her side with her mother and the boy leaning over her. Are you okay, they were saying. What hurts? But Alice just closed her eyes, breathed deeply, wanting only to sleep.
Her mother invited a priest the first week in August, the middle-aged one who’d been young when Alice was in high school. You can talk things over with him, her mother said. Sometimes it helps to get a new point of view. She dusted the furniture and baked a cake and Alice didn’t complain. What use was it when anyone could see that she wasn’t getting better, not even the crying had stopped. A finger-cracking handshake from the priest. Her mother talked while he sipped coffee. The divorce is final, she said. The annulment’s not. If you could explain, Father. It would mean so much. He looked over the unclipped hedge of his brows, his expression thoughtful. Alice looked beyond the priest to the window while her mother talked. She held tight to her elbows.
The neighborhood was not the same. The Zeisers were gone and the Carew sisters, too, and not even the lush trees and grass could disguise how the homes had been neglected. And still Alice recognized those houses and the full oak trees. More than twenty years later and she remembered this street better than the one she’d just left in Cincinnati. She knew its sidewalks and Catalpas and every place she’d stumbled.
Hummingbirds flew just outside the window. At seven-thirty every morning they flew to the feeder, and the air was stirred by their swift wings. They moved as if wound up by some inner coil, and she leaned back in her chair and watched. She wanted to sketch them, to capture something of their inner energy. She had the sketch pad ready. She held the pencil steady but the lines were all wrong. She just observed after that. They flew in then out to the treetops. She wanted to remember them as they were, splendid in their sparkling emerald green.
Group therapy with the cross social worker who wore skinny jeans. She wasn’t gentle with the patients. Talk therapy until talk therapy started helping. This is how it would go. One person talked and then another and another one after that and the hydrangea outside the window was beautiful. A blue and lilac so soft it drew your eye and the wind ruffled the leaves on the bush.
Everything has its season. That’s what Sean said to her once. They were camping at a music festival. Listening to a bluegrass group in autumn, and the fire was warm in the chill evening. Its season, and the festival wasn’t even half over yet, and he smiled the way he did when he knew something that she did not.
She couldn’t sleep. From midnight to dawn she laid awake, eyes full moons, and listened as bullfrogs bellowed their deep-throated courting outside her window, listened as the birds sang in the new day. Awake and more awake and it was enough to drive her mad. It was harder than nightmares. Hard as divorce and she wanted sleep. She stared when her mother opened the blinds. She stared while the coffee perked or the oven baked. She stared as her mother read from the book then she closed her eyes and dreamed. Now she slept as the dead do. Like someone waiting to begin a journey.
Once there was a Goddess, Danu, the most ancient of all Celtic Deities. God declared her name meant abundance and she would be experienced as a river that nourishes all of life, a River Goddess who offered to clear all that was stagnant. As the river flows into the sea, God declared, Danu would bring movement in the direction of one’s dreams.
Regrets kept her on the move, the past somersaulting into the present. She paced from one room to the next in a prescribed pattern. When she stopped she cried until she couldn’t breathe, and on Labor Day she cried for hours and hours. When she sat, her legs shook until her mother threatened to bypass out-patient and register her as an in-patient. An annulment would cure you, she said. You could calm down and focus on your future, but Alice paced anyway. She tried to find those memories that stabbed her. She needed to pull them out, but they were always going in deeper.
Her mother held her close. She kissed the top of her head, and Alice felt peaceful inside. The sun was shining and the windows were bright, and her mother raised the shade to the top to let more light in. All of this will clear away, she said. You’ll find a new dream and make it come true.
She ran her fingers through Alice’s hair. She spoke, and Alice followed the rhythm of her voice. Her mother was saying an annulment would make everything all right. Alice would see. She needed to be strong and the priest would know what to do. Her eyes were deep blue in the brightly lit room, like Grandmom’s, like Alice’s, and if Alice and Sean had had a child, his eyes would have been blue, too. And it was a thread connecting them, this depth. It joined them.
I’m sorry, her mother said. I should have gone to your gathering. I’m sorry. She held Alice’s hand like a child asking forgiveness.
It was time to make a move. She knew it and told her mother so. Her mother didn’t argue but brought the car around, letting the air cool the inside. As Alice got in, her mother pressed her palm to her daughter’s cheek.
They were going to the hospital. The air chilled her hot skin. Her mother was speaking words from the goddess book and Alice was listening, reciting the words with her. Danu was riding a mare with purity of purpose. Goddess Danu broke through all blocks and effort flowed into fruition. The fruits were hummingbirds and the sky was filled with them.