Published in The New Guard | Pushcart Prize Nominee
Last week a reconstruction surgeon held my johhny coat open and said I was young in my body. He was looking at my left breast. He shifted his gaze to my right breast and said that the body doesn’t like empty spaces. My right breast, once child-flat, then fertile-plump then a tumor-less cave, now bears a scar resembling a single tuft in a cushion.
How easy, how reductive, to think of the body as decoration. How simple to paint a ceiling to hide a water stain or move a chair to protect the eye from electrical outlets—not so easy a scar that gallops from clavicle to nipple. When I met Katrina, where I lived then—in Virginia, it was at the end of high school. She loved to pair skull and crossbones patterned leggings with her hair, short and cropped. She was someone else on her horse—tailored.
We were eighteen when she put me on Boogs. Bareback. I’d never been on a horse before, it was as if I was on the roof of a skyscraper. One with the power to throw me. The next week that skyscraper threw Katrina. She’s an inch shorter now. I wasn’t there when it happened—I had just moved to Connecticut for college. I’ve always felt responsible for Katrina’s fall—as if my leaving was the empty space that caused the compression of her spine.
Recently, I moved to a place that used to have two horses. When I came to view the house and barn there was only one. He stood in his stall beneath two-hundred year old beams–a male horse, with a female name: Lindsay. His shape was an unbroken line of mane and muscle—I touched him. Still, it was uncomfortable to look him in the eye. I didn’t understand him—I’m not remotely horsey.
When I came home after the appointment with the surgeon, I stood barefoot on one of the mottled protruding stones in the yard—out behind the barn where the land is flat, clover and grass bordered by a haphazard stone wall—born, I imagine, from generations of farmers frustrated with a plow. There’s a groove in the grass where the horse had been trained—a dirt oval slowly being reclaimed by buttercups. More mottled stones surround the paddock, protruding, lichen-covered, like the rounded backs of whales—only their smallest, most vulnerable part showing.
Blueprint for Daylight: An Excerpt
Published in Connecticut’s Emerging Writers: An Anthology
I should tell you about the house.
The first time I saw the house we were together. Greg drove us to Hamden, a large suburban town outside New Haven. Trevor was five months old and tucked into his car seat, asleep after the day’s excitement at the Durham Fair. I was in the passenger seat clutching a stack of grainy black and white house listings and a map.
Our apartment in West Haven was spacious enough for Greg and me, but somehow one baby made it crowded. After looking at other New Haven area towns, we settled on Hamden. Hamden was close to everything: my parents in North Haven, our friends, our jobs, and there was a wildness to the landscape that drew me—especially in Mt. Carmel, a hamlet that sprouted in the shadow of Sleeping Giant Mountain.
We climbed it, one of our first outings as a family, just a few months before. We took the path that leads to the belly of the Giant, what the Quinnipiac Tribe call Hobbomock, a stone giant put to rest by a manitou, or good spirit. According to one legend, Hobbomok had slammed his foot down in anger at the mistreatment of his people by white settlers. In another, his anger was due to white settlers destroying the land. The truth is somewhere in the body of the mountain. Either way, the collective legend is that before the manitou put him to sleep, it was Hobbomock’s anger induced foot that diverted the Connecticut River.
That early June day, we climbed up the Giant’s left hip to its belly, and at the summit—ascended the open air Romanesque viewing tower, what locals call The Castle. Greg carried Trevor on his back in a harness and I walked behind them, not looking out the window holes as we climbed, focusing instead on Trevor’s kicking feet, hoping, wanting, to be surprised by the view.
At the top, Greg took a right turn with Trevor towards the parapet and a view of the western mountains. I turned left, to the wall of open-aired windows, splayed my fingers on one of their stone sills and looked out on the openness. I took in the wind in the clouds, the skyline of New Haven, and Long Island Sound, a tidal estuary of the Atlantic Ocean a–blue-black sliver—in the distance.
Now, four months later, we passed the entrance to the Giant on the way to the house listing that I held. “Turn here, the house is number one-twenty,” I said. Greg pulled our car off Whitney Avenue and up Dickerman Street, a steep hill with sharp curves. I put my nose to the house specs: 1928, three bedrooms, one bathroom, walk-out basement, fireplace. Fireplace. None of the other houses in our low-price range had a fireplace. The car stopped. I put down the paper and looked out the driver’s side window. The house sat on a rise of un-cut grass, halfway back on the land.
I unbelted and leaned toward the driver’s side window, nearly in Greg’s lap. The house was white and taller than it was wide, with still taller trees visible past the steeply-pitched roof. I will learn that the neighborhood children call it the Witch’s House because of its steep pointed center gable. I took in the gable, the staircase to the front door, the two stories, and four roof lines. I took in the white painted chimney that disappeared into a small side room lit by the setting sun. I took in the house’s large windows and cracked green shutters. I took in its emptiness.
The house had Postmedieval English, Gothic Revival, Colonial Revival, Dutch Colonial, and Tudor features. It was odd. It was perfect. I knew it was meant to be ours. I didn’t even have to go inside.
There is a photo from that day. Greg took it standing on the front lawn with my 35 mm Minolta while I stood by the front door. I hold Trevor, his whole body facing Greg. My arms are overflowing with his plumpness, his bottom rests on my belly.
You can’t see it in the photo, but there is a cord tied to the front door—it connects my toothy smile, Trevor’s toothless one, and Greg’s peeking out from behind the camera.
On the phone with our insurance company, in Texas, the agent said to Greg, “You’re in a flood zone.” Greg laughed. “You need a topographical map. We’re almost two hundred feet above the little Mill River. If it floods and reaches us—the whole town would be under water. The agent laughed. We got the low-water rate.
We moved in a month later. The story starts in the living room.
Published in PAGE: Art and Literary Inspiration from the Litchfield Hills and the Transcendental Landscape
“I was only nine,” she tells me, “but I remember making the decision to be happy.” My mother and I are on the phone. I am in my house in Connecticut’s northeast corner and she in hers near New Haven. While we talk, I fold laundry, empty the dishwasher, let out the dog. I imagine her sitting at her kitchen table, surrounded by neat piles of magazines and pads of paper covered with lists. Her comment surprises me—I stop wiping a window.
“What do you mean, ‘happy?'” I ask.
“Well, once we left West Newton, I didn’t feel that anyplace else was home. But I decided one day—I remember it clearly. I said to myself, ‘I am going to be happy here.'”
Her sigh had a smile in it.
I’ve heard her talk about the years she lived in northwest Connecticut all my life. As a child, my eyes would automatically roll before she could get the whole name from her lips: Torrington. The name is a myth, fantastical and massive, a town that is not brick and mortar but a confection that floats in the western Connecticut hills.
My mother was in the third grade when she moved to Torrington in 1954. By then, she was a veteran mover, having lived in West Newton, Massachusetts, a pit-stop in Minnesota, where her father learned cake decorating, then to Connecticut: Naugatuck, Bethlehem, and finally, Torrington. Here, her father became the co-owner of Baggish Bakery, in the town’s north end. My grandparents were at the bakery all the time, my grandfather and his partner mixing dough, twisting rolls—-my grandmother helping customers, wrapping cakes in white boxes. An only child, my mother was often alone.
I have no picture, but imagine her at the house she shared with my grandparents, light brown curls held back with a barrette, multiple cow licks escaping, a smocked blouse tucked into little, tailored checked shorts, standing on the hill of Sherman Street, looking down on the town. “I am going to be happy here,” she says to herself. An adult decision in a child’s body.
“In the Torrington bakery, the mixers were always going,” my mother tells me. Two huge ones for dough, and a smaller commercial mixer, just for frosting. My mother’s favorite dessert was her father’s cupcakes, vanilla with chocolate frosting. “Your grandpa,” she says, “could frost a cupcake in two swipes.”
They moved from Torrington when my mother was 14. To another mill town, this time in southern Connecticut where my grandfather had the opportunity to own a bakery without a partner. Just before they moved, my mother was confirmed at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church. There is a photo of my mother from that morning. I am always surprised when I see it how grown up she looks, as if it is only a year or two before she is twenty and marries my father.
In it, she stands on the front lawn in Torrington, her hair is short, fluffy—mirroring the bottom half of her dress—a crinoline filling with a skirt of soft white cotton. It’s nipped, gathered at her waist and topped by a simple shirt-waist bodice with cap sleeves and a portrait collar. A thin, gold bangle is on her wrist, a present sent from her cousin, a paratrooper stationed in India. She’s smiling her father’s smile. It reaches her eyes. It’s the smile of a girl, now a young woman, who decided to be happy. Because of it, there were bicycle rides, apples from Barrante’s, piles of books from the library, activities at church, friends—who today are still her friends—comic books, and Wrigley’s Spearmint Gum from Petricone’s, and the bakery, always the bakery and those cupcakes: vanilla cake with whipped chocolate—not milk chocolate and not dark chocolate either—something in-between. She would hold a cupcake in two hands, pleated paper cupping its bottom and take a small but deep bite in the very top. Beneath the chocolate frosting was the vanilla belly of cake. My mother would insert her nose into this cake crater, close her eyes and inhale the moist sweetness of still warm vanilla.
The building in Torrington where the bakery was is still there, although it is vacant. The church where my mother was confirmed had moved, where it stood is now an empty lot. My grandparents’ old house is still on Sherman Street, although someone else lives in it, and Petricone’s Pharmacy survives, too. My grandparents though, are not vacant or changed, they are gone. My grandfather when I was six and my grandmother just last winter.
I have moved ten times in my life. The last time, my parents were also moving, downsizing. My mother had called then, and said she wanted to give me something. It was heavy, would I come look at it? When I got to her house, she was waiting in the garage next to a tall shrouded mystery on a skinny wood and metal table with caster feet. She whisked off the blanket and revealed a mixer, very old and with a frayed cord and in desperate need of cleaning. I looked at her. “It was your Grandpa’s,” she said. “He made all of his frosting with it.” I placed the mixer laying down wrapped in its blanket, a big metal baby, in the back of my minivan and took it home.
After I get off the phone with my mother, I stop cleaning. I think about the mixer. It’s in my basement. I go downstairs and stand in front of it, noticing the damage. In the eight years it has been here, shoved in a dark corner, its already fraying cord was encouraged to further decay by a hungry mouse and the whole thing needs to be sandblasted and re-painted. Suddenly, none of that matters. I want it in my kitchen. I want to hear it whirring, whipping, as it makes my favorite cream cheese frosting. I would spread it between layers of carrot cake full of raisins, walnuts, fragrant with nutmeg, and while I eat it, licking stray frosting from my plate, I would think about happiness as a decision, how I have never completely embraced any of the ten places I have lived and how I want to find my Torrington.
In it, the mixer will have a place of honor.
Confessions of a Makeup Addict
Published in The Woven Tale Press Selected Works | Reviewed by Publishers Weekly
I came out of the womb waving a red lipstick. – Rose McGowan
I love makeup. I love everything about it. I love the product names from my youth: Airspun, Moisture Whip—Kissing Potion. The packaging: crisp boxes gift-wrapped in cellophane, the little molded clear plastic caps protecting new lipsticks, but most of all—the promises.
I’ve been known to wander the aisles of my drugstore, with no particular purpose, and leave with $78.53 in new promises. I just say no to the plastic bag from the cashier and slip my new foundationeyelinerlipglossbronzer into my purse, and mentally, my wish has been granted and I am already transformed.
I can trace the groundwork for the attraction. My parents moved my sister and me to Virginia, where, knowing no one, I decided to turn myself into a new, better, older-looking version of myself. So, there I was in 1983, fourteen years old sitting in the front seat of the school bus directly behind the driver. While all the cool kids sat in the back smoking pot, I used the twenty-minute ride to slip my hand into my LeSportSac and pull out the magic: Maybelline Great Lash Mascara. I used the mirror over the bus driver’s head to sweep my lashes. Appraising myself, I would smile with achievement. I looked older. Since all the windows were closed, I was also a little high. When weeks later, on two separate incidents, a grown man flashed me, I was shocked. Wow, I thought, this stuff really works.
It seemed to me that makeup was connected to power which was confirmed when my mother became a Mary Kay consultant. Makeup, which had been taboo, was suddenly OK. No more stabbing myself in the eye when the bus hit a pothole. I was thrilled to discover that I was not just sanctioned to wear makeup but recruited.
My mother practiced her sales pitch on my nine-year old sister and me. Our living room was visited by the UPS man, for whom I would prepare by spraying myself with Babe perfume. Weekly, he would deposit carton after carton containing pale-pink boxes of makeup I had never heard of, like Skin Refresher and Magic Masque. But my favorites were the palettes of eye shadow. The eye shadow required mixing with a few drops of water and had to be applied with a miniature brush. The brush was a work of art. When you twisted the stem, the brush disappeared inside.
I was hooked.
I convinced my mother to pay me $30 per UPS delivery to open all the boxes, apply her gold-embossed label and stack them on their matching pale-pink shelving unit in her closet. I accompanied her on complimentary facial parties where I would set up standing personal mirrors as place settings on the hostess’s dining room table and once the party was underway, demonstrate to the guests the Mary Kay sweeping application method: everything was upward. I slathered on more face cream than Joan Crawford. It was glamorous.
But more than that, I inhaled each woman’s sigh of satisfaction as they welcomed their newly transformed selves. I imagined my parents, sister, and me driving around in a pink Cadillac, the sign of a truly successful Mary Kay Image Consultant.
While makeup didn’t get my family a pink Cadillac, it did get me a lot of other things. Dates, jobs, an interview with Barbizon Modeling in New Haven (I was pretty enough to pay for classes, not pretty enough to get signed–so, I walked out), into college, down the church aisle, and a decade as an entrepreneur. Of course, lipstick and blush didn’t get me those things. I got them. Makeup gave me the confidence to do them.
It seems that lately, as a woman over forty, I have noticed all kinds of little signs that I need to change, yet again. This time, perhaps, from a heavy makeup user to one on probation. Last week, my photo was taken in a group. Before-hand, in front of the mirror, I thought I looked pretty good. Short, funky hair, a gorgeous print blouse, aquamarine stilettos, and the cherry on top—red lipstick. When I saw the photo I thought, Who’s the old lady squinting in the sun with neon lips? Oh, no. That’s me.
It was a startling revelation. How do I go for less is more and retain the confidence, the transformation from a woman with a face to a woman without one? How do I display myself as someone who is still taking chances, in fact, someone who has recently thrown it all on the line, closing a successful business to be a writer? Don’t I need a new lipstick for that?
In retaliation and defeat, I went naked. No mascara, no powder, no eyeliner. It was only one day, but it had results. I realized I looked OK with a little lip gloss and a good night’s sleep.
But I need color. I need it to breathe. My face may have new lines where foundation likes to gather, but somewhere on my personal landscape, there must be the possibility of transformation, a place where I can put up a sign that says I will be successful again and someday, make some money.
So, today I took stock of my body and ended with my feet. I appraised them sitting on the coffee table. They looked positively pre-pubescent. I drove quickly to the drug store and found exactly what I was looking for in nail polish, a deep gloss burgundy.
The name? Rich as Rubies.
It cost $3.99.