Crack

I had three arms. At night, I used one of them to expand the crack in the wall. Its fingernails were remarkably resistant to the old plaster. Naïve I was, I hoped the hole would burst and collapse the house in the end, but it never did.

Father didn’t know about the gap or perhaps he was in denial that it was there at all. Mother didn’t care.

We had lived in the old house ever since the day I got up and walked. Mother thought it was a sign that when she put me down onto the wooden floor, I stood up and took my first steps.

“Look, Henry!” she called on father. “Selma is walking. This is it! This must be our home forever.” Then I took another step and threw up.

Mother liked to hide that detail when she told the story to strangers. Strangers loved the vintage atmosphere of the house. They were the people she had met, whilst running errands – shop assistants, post office clerks, hairdressers, policemen and women. A shy, but kind, sociable woman, she’d invite some of them over for tea or dinner. She loved to host. And even though she only had one arm, she was proficient in the kitchen. These people told interesting stories of their busy days, their boredom at work, their loves and their hates. Mother joined the conversations, always disguising father’s muteness with her naïve, cherishable, but incessant cheeriness. She sought out company, perhaps because she was a single child. Or maybe she did not want to feel inadequate with her one arm.

Mother’s dinner invites began to dwindle after the lady from the post office came round for dinner one night. She asked the question they had asked so often:

“How did you lose the arm?”

Mother topped off the water in our glasses and father left to take his cognac in the living room. He had heard the story many times. The post office lady waited for an answer.

“One day, when I was five, I woke up and it was gone.”

“What do you mean?”

“When I opened my eyes, I found that someone had taken it off during the night.”

The lady’s eyes opened wide.

“How? Why?”

“I asked myself the same questions. I posted signs across town to find the arm thief, but I never got an answer.”

“How tragic!” the lady exclaimed.

And though mother could have worn a prosthetic arm, she did not like to wear it.

“I used to have a prosthetic one. I never got used to it. It wasn’t my arm. And I’d rather have no arm than one that is not mine.”

The day she threw it out, I wasted no time to fish it from the bin.

All of a sudden, father stood in the door.

“I think it’s time for you to leave,” he said to the lady, who had begun to chew on mother’s carrot cake. She stopped and swallowed hard, looking up at father, then down towards mother, who avoided eye contact.

“Just this piece of cake Henry,” mother murmured.

“She can take it home,” he said and skulked out of the dining room.

Mother rose, excusing her husband, for he had a hard day at the office. She excused herself for being such a bad host.

“It was a pleasure to meet you,” the woman said at the door. “Take care.” With that, she left. Mother never saw her again much afterward.

I carried in the dishes to the kitchen for mother to clean. When I was done, I ran upstairs to my attic room. A doll lay on the floor. Her porcelain stare was sad and I felt bad that I had left her there, alone in the dark. She would feel safer between the bear and mother’s prosthetic arm on the shelf. After I had changed for bed and brushed my teeth, I crawled under my cotton cover and closed my eyes.

Right on time, at 3 a.m., I heard the doorknob turn. The floorboards creaked under his weight. Five steps and he would be beside the bed – 1, 2, 3, 4, 5. He lifted the duvet and slipped under next to me, pushing me against the wall, because the bed was too small for the both of us. I pretended to be asleep. He slid his fingers underneath my nightgown, wandering up and down my skin. His breath was sticky tonight from the cognac and excitement, but his routine was the same. He put a pillow in between our heads so our eyes could not meet in the moonlight. With a mechanical motion he pulled aside my underpants. Then he came in and out of me, growing faster, panting heavier. I could always tell when he was done, twitching rapid. He rolled himself out of bed.

“Forgive me,” he whispered standing by the door, ready to turn the knob and flee from the clinging air that had filled the room. When he was gone, I got up and strode over to my shelf. I took mother’s arm and sat down before the crack. I could feel the places where the paint had chipped on the limb, uncovering the steel structure. Beneath the full moon, the hand looked graceful still, its long fingers formed into a delicate V. I held it tight to scratch out little pieces of plaster. I dug until I was too exhausted to continue, picked up what debris had come undone and put it in the empty cookie jar that I had hidden underneath my bed. I would empty it tomorrow; bury the pieces in our garden. Then I returned to bed and fell asleep with an empty mind.

When I turned 16, my breasts sprang into place like mother’s muffins in the oven. Boys began to notice me.

His name was Gilligan. Mother did not like him. Father hated him. I loved him.

“He is far too old for you,” mother said one night at dinner, after Gilligan escorted me home. I shook my head.

“He is 34. You are only 16. Why don’t you find a nice boy your age?” she insisted.

“Because I like him,” I answered as I fiddled with my fork.

Father shook his head. “Disgusting,” he muttered before he left the dining room. His pace had slowed over the years. His walk was firmer thus, but otherwise he had not changed. Mother began to wash the dishes. She looked beyond her years; paler, sicker now. A sudden fatigue had fallen over her in the last few years. Now more than when I was a child, I admired her tenacity to do the housework, despite the missing limb. I offered my help, but she rejected with a flick of a kitchen towel. I ran up to the attic and wrote a few nice words into my diary. I drew little hearts for ‘i’s in ‘Gilligan’.

The first time we met, was at the library. I was reading a book on herbaceous plants, standing in the aisle. I liked to grow herbs in the garden. Gilligan suggested an alternate book for the herb enthusiast. I followed his advice. When I returned the book, I thanked him with a few fresh leaves of basil I stole from the neighbor’s yard, because mine had not grown yet.

“You have beautiful eyes,” he said. I blushed and looked away. He brushed aside a strain of hair that came undone from my ponytail. He lifted my head by the chin and pressed his lips against mine. Never before had I been kissed and never again would I let anybody else kiss me, but Gilligan.

From that day, we met in the aisles of the library and kissed in secret, between romance novels and cookbooks. He held my hands tight. After two months, we went from kissing in the library to his flat. I came to see him after class and he cooked lunches and then touched me on the sofa. His hands were softer than father’s.

He drove me home at night. As soon as he had left, I stood in front of the mirror inspecting my adolescent shell. I did not understand what Gilligan saw in me. My nose was mediocre. My hair was too short and I was a little chubby around the hips. Other girls were far prettier. I vowed to eat less of mother’s carrot cakes.

At night I continued to scratch the gap. Mother’s hand now fit right inside of it. I began to see the brick that lay beneath the plaster and before the insulation.

One day, mother fell ill. She developed an unrelenting cough. It would not go away. She brought up mucus speckled with blood and found it hard to breathe. Over her wheezing, we feared that she would die.

“I can’t go. I’m sorry,” I said to Gilligan, who had made plans for us to move to a nearby town where he was appointed head of sales for the local printer service. He promised he would come visit me every weekend, whilst I took care of mother. She welcomed my decision and tried to help around the household, attempting the chores she had committed to for many years, but she was too weak. After mugs and plates shattered by the dozen, I confined her to her bed and played maid.

I was waiting for Gilligan by the train station the night she died. He said he’d come that weekend. Father sat by mother’s side. And Gilligan never arrived.

When I found mother dead, her crumpled body on the sofa in the living room where father had moved her to, I dropped down on my knees. I felt the burden of mother’s battle lifted from the house, but it did not console me. Instead, I prayed for Gilligan to return to me soon now that I was free to move away with him. I stumbled into the kitchen. Mother had wanted carrot soup that night.

The broth was thin. Father and I sipped it in silence. I could only hear the silver spoons scrape along the ceramic bowls. When we were done, I left the table uncleared, suffocating at the thought of never hearing mother call for me again.

Father disappeared into the living room and I rushed upstairs, crying full-bodied tears that dropped all over my diary. The little hearts in ‘Gilligan’ smudged and faded. I took the arm and sobbed into its hand, breathing in fine cement dust.

I lay awake for hours, waiting to hear the doorknob turn, but it never did. Drowsy from the tears, I drifted off to sleep. At 3 a.m., I woke to find myself lying in the center of the bed. I expected to be up against the wall by now. My rejected heart pumped fast. I got up and crossed the hall into father’s room, where he lay snoring. I took off my nightgown and climbed into his bed. He did not move and I stared at the ceiling and the glass chandelier that jingled in the breeze coming through the open window. The room still smelled of mother. I turned to face his back and reached out to touch the warmth between his legs.

“Go,” he said without turning around. I touched him then. He kicked his legs hard, reached down between his legs, grabbed hold of my hand, and threw it towards me. I held my breath and put back on my nightgown. I returned across the hall and sat on the edge of my bed, exhaling. My eyes wandered, searching for a spot of familiarity. I jumped up, determined now to finish what I had begun. Mother’s arm dug deeper, ripping through the yellow insulation. When I reached the outer layer of the wall, I was drenched in sweat. My arms were heavy, but I dared not stop. So I scratched and pulled and pushed the porous brick and kicked it with my foot. It cracked and snapped and larger junks of it came undone. When I was finished, sunlight broke through. The gap had expanded to the size of a small window and I could see the morning birds fly by. I closed my eyes for a minute, drained from the labor. I stroked mother’s arm, before I shoved it through the hole and pushed it out. I heard it tumble down the roof and plummet to the ground. When I searched the garden and all around the house in the afternoon, it had gone.

A Mixed Blessing

It was a steamy first date, kiss and night; its fifty shades of juicy detail would make a novel series.

“Seems we’re a couple. It’s time to start revealing some of my dark secrets,” I tell her a month later.

“I enthusiastically agree, on both. Any cherished perversions?” she says.

“I’m turned on beyond sanity when I kiss you.”

“I remember just purple-hazily… Thanks for telling me. Anything more on your perv shortlist?”

“One more thing. I write. Sometimes, or oftentimes.”

“Like presentations slides? Or, romantic-explicit text massages to me, having various sliding meanings?”

“On the top of non-fiction texting, I also write fiction.”

“Like fictitious text messages?” she asks, in a broken voice.

“Not at all;” I give her a deep kiss of deep consolation, “rather, short stories and novels.”

“What’s special about that?”

“Some parts of it; a sex scene or ten.”

“Like, body parts kissed all over and all under?” she asks, back in her over-the-moon voice.

“Partly. Please don’t start telling your mom, grannies, and everybody we know.”

“Deal! I prefer practice to writings,” she says, and gives me a French kiss.

* * *

Nights, weeks, and years slide by, some in writing, some in practice. One day she says,

“I think I’ll hit upon a new mental challenge for Mom, to give some exciting exercise to her brain, and to prevent it from ageing. You know, atop of all the usual retirement stuff…”

“Like crosswords, Sudoku, and genealogy?”

“Something more, to keep her going and make her feel smart and indispensable.”

“Wait, didn’t you mention the other day that she loved languages?”

“Yes.”

“I keep receiving spam about translator work: Keep your slippers and PJ on, while working over the Internet. Etc. Ad lib. Ad naus.”

“Fun idea. I’ve three search engines in my purse.”

“It’s googleworthy, even on slow purse gadgets.”

“Now listen!” She reads aloud, “Earn big bucks while sipping coffee on your veranda. Choose a specialty, language, and work volume that suites you, on a text-by-text basis. Register NOW!”

“Email her the link.”

“Done. Welcome to the blessings of the realtime economy, Ma.”

“The mixed blessings of,” I add, for some reason.

Nights, weeks, and years slide by, in writing, language practice, and other practice.

* * *

Two years later, she brings a printed tantric scene full of kisses, weird metaphors, and questionmarks scribbled in red. On top of that, the scene reads eerily familiar to me…

“I remember you loved languages; any French-translation hints on this, for Mom? She gets most of the Sanskrit, but not the sexual anatomy…”

Frankly, I’ve never penetrated French deeper than the vital basics of amour, embrasser, baiser, and danger des avalanches.

“What’s the deal,” I say, “they’ll just send a translation draft to the author via his agent, and ask for comments.”

“Or, address the author directly?”

“No need to; in fact, you’re doing it right now.”

“Didn’t I tell you translations were a fun idea,” she says, laughing, and demonstrating what embrasser et baiser mean.

“Didn’t I tell you realtime business was a mixed blessing? Now, don’t tell your mom who’s the author.”

“I won’t. But, in private ways, I’ll make you stand for what you’ve written,” she says, giving me a more hands-on demonstration, “and by the way, guess why she chose this particular text?”

“To brush up her Sanskrit and red-questionmark scribbling?”

“Plus, the flame of her first university years was a young tantric yogi.”

She tells me a long, ananda-ending, yoga name; eerily familiar, too.

“Lucky then-young woman. And by the way, lucky my first yoga teacher…” I say.

Outbreak

The strands of my hair sizzled like raw meat on a skillet.

The heated comb of iron glided so slowly that I feared my hair would be burned. The steam from my ironed hair, blended with smells of hair sheen, chemical relaxers and hair grease, created the most unpleasant and suffocating odor. But despite the smell, I inhaled deeply, trying my hardest to breathe. I could almost taste the sour odor of hair spray and grease and rotten eggs.

My ears were ringing from all the noise. Too many conversations took place at once, and it was impossible to process most of what I heard.

The women were like tone-deaf members of a choir, each of them trying to out-sing one another. Occasionally, the background music of hair dryers would be switched on. Then their voices would burst forth with a new kind of energy as they tried to drown out the machinery.

You’d think that they were trying to call out to God.

“Oh, she got GOOD hair!” yelled an old lady from underneath one of the dryers.

“She sure does!” shrieked another woman with a head full of curlers. “And that’s because mixed people have the nicest hair.”

“You’re tellin’ me!” said the old lady, looking wide-eyed. “Shoot, I’d take some mixed hair over these naps ANY day.”

The soft-cushioned leather seat started to feel like concrete against my thighs. I could feel the heat of the comb against the back of my neck and I gripped the arms of my chair as if my life depended on it. If I had “good hair,” then I wouldn’t have to endure this torture in the first place.

I caught a glimpse of my mother who sat only a few feet away from me, fanning herself with a wrinkled church bulletin she had pulled out from her bag. Of all of the loud voices in the salon, she was the only one who remained completely silent. She occasionally exchanged smiles and “hellos” with the people who sat next to her, but the exchanges never went further than that.

She was gazing at my hair, but seemed to be lost in her own thoughts. As if sensing my eyes on her, she suddenly moved her eyes to my face and she blinked. She gave me a wink and grinned. And I returned a wide smile.

“Turn left,” my stylist, Maxine, said.

She abruptly swung my chair away from my mother and turned my head sideways before I could process the message or figure out which way was left. My smile disappeared as quickly. Several strands of my hair were combed into my face while she straightened my hair from the back. But then I peeked through my wild strands of hair, careful not to move my head while my stylist fried through a new batch. Sitting across from me was an old woman who looked old enough to be my grandmother. Her stylist, who looked about thirty years old, had a pained expression on her face.

“Your hair is lookin’ so brittle, Miz Taylor. When last did you do your protein treatment?”

“Girl, I don’t know what you’re talkin’ about, my hair is perfectly fine. I don’t need no protein treatment… You’re just tryna get me to spend all of my money.”

“No no no, Miz Taylor, it’s just that I’ve noticed your hair is very dry and it’s breaking. It needs more protein and conditioner—“

“I don’t want no protein or conditioner! All I came here for is a wash and set.”

“Alright, Miz Taylor… If that’s what you want.”

‘Mizz Taylor’ looked a lot like a grown child, with her knitted brows and her huge pout. I stared at the lanky wet strands of gray hair that hung down to her shoulders. Saw the way her stylist carefully combed through the fine strands with trembling hands. But despite how careful she was, after each glide, small clumps of hair were pulled out with the comb.

“Bend your head.”

Before I could react, I felt the warm tips of her fingers grasp my head and tilt it downward, as if she were controlling a machine. When she let go, I froze, feeling both annoyed at her impatience and afraid that the slightest budge would cause me to get burned. My head was bent so low that my chest began to hurt. I gazed at the tile floor.

“Hey Max!” yelled an old customer who sat nearby, “You’ll never believe who I saw in church last Sunday!”

“Who did you see?” Max answered.

“Nicole!” the woman yelled.

“You’re lying!” A new voice chimed in.

“Are you sure you weren’t seeing things that day?” my stylist asked. Then she paused, resting her heavy hand on the top of my head as she spoke to her customers.

“Girls I swear, I’m telling y’all the truth. Chick had on a blue mini dress with heels she could barely walk in. And don’t even get me started on the ridiculous neckline. She might as well just let those things hang out in the open.”

“Oh, dear Lord. That definitely sounds like her.” my stylist said with a sigh.

“Sounds like she went to church to find herself a new man…” another voice said.

“And she had the nerve to show off her jewelry in church! Wavin’ around her left hand from the pew so she can show off her rings!”

“Hmph, I bet you that bling as fake as her weave…”

“Probably… And those skimpy legs looked like drum sticks. Don’t know how she had the nerve to wear something that short…”

Maxine giggled at the last remark as she lifted her hand from my head. Seconds later, she shoved a wooden spoon into my hand. “Hold this over your ear.”

I grasped the wooden spoon and held the wider end against my small ear, careful to cover it completely. I tried to sit as still as I could, but I began to fidget uncontrollably. Getting my edges straightened was the worst part.

“Calm down, calm down,” said Max soothingly as she pulled me back to the chair again. “It’s just the steam you’re feeling. You have to stay still.”

I nodded and I tried to stay still… But I couldn’t. I was either trembling or cringing each time the hot comb came closer.

I took a few deep breaths, but the foul odor only made my eyes water. I couldn’t clear my head because the voices were overpowering and it was hard to think straight. Every muscle in my body stiffened as I tried desperately to sit motionless.

Meanwhile, Max carried on with her conversation, laughing and pausing while she handled my hair.

But then suddenly, I felt a hot sting on my scalp, and jumped so hard that I dropped the spoon. “Oowww!!” I yelled.

And just like that, the choir was slowly silenced by my cry of pain. I could feel their beady eyes begin to fasten on me, both curious and judgmental.

“Oh, now I know you don’t have the nerve to be tender-headed with all these naps!” Max chuckled lightly. “Now listen, just sit back, it’ll be alright…”

Excuse me?!” boomed my mother’s voice.

Now everyone’s attention had turned to my mother, who happened to be glaring fiercely at Max. A young woman who pretended to read a copy of Vibe magazine let out a low whistle.

I took this opportunity to quickly glance at Max’s reaction in the mirror. She simply stared back at my mother in shock, like captured prey.

“First of all, don’t you dare assume that my child can handle being burned because of the texture of her hair; it is your responsibility to be careful with a hot comb. And second, if you burn her again, I’m going to the manager to file a complaint. Do you understand?”

Then all eyes were back on Max, who looked pale and frightened. “Oh, of course, of course, I…. that won’t be necessary,” Max stammered. “I’m so sorry, it won’t happen again.”

And in the awkward silence that ensued, I could hear Ms. Taylor’s voice:

“You know, Ms. Campbell… If I were you, I’d demand a discount.”

My mother, still fuming, did not bother to respond. I looked over at her as she glared at Max’s gentle hands in silence. Although I knew her anger was not directed towards me, even I was afraid of her wrath.

Tension lingered in the salon after my mother’s outburst, and the cacophonic chatter now turned into hushed voices and tentative whispers. Max remained silent for the remainder of the time that she handled my hair, only pausing to ask if “I was okay.” No one dared to talk to her or include her in another conversation while she worked.

And there I sat, tight-lipped and stone still. Terrified that I would feel another burn. And afraid that this would cause my mother to start World War III.

But the burn did not come. And so I relaxed.

I closed my eyes and listened to the flurry of hushed voices. I wondered what these women would say about my mother and me when we were gone.

It Was Really Nothing

On the way home from the library, I passed an alley where it sounded like two guys were pounding a third guy.

They must have seen me looking, because they shouted in my direction. First reaction: run. But I couldn’t. It’s the wheelchair.

I wheeled across the street towards a figure who was making haste down the empty sidewalk. I called and then yelled to her but she didn’t answer, didn’t even look my way. Probably the same bitch who deliberately closed the elevator door in my face when I was leaving the stacks.

On the other side of the street, I felt a little safer since no one was in sight. However, when you’re in a wheelchair, things in the distance are a lot closer than they look.

I started to phone Sally, my girlfriend. Girlfriend in the sense that she’s a female friend. She’s normal. She’s been very patient with her paranoid, handicapped friend. On more than one occasion, she offered to give me a lift when I was working late on my research. Except for a couple of times when it was raining like hell, I routinely declined, partly to manage my mental IOUs and partly to assert my pathetic independence.

Tonight was a matter of pride though, so I stuck the phone back in my jacket pocket and rolled on—my anti-Samaritan lady out of sight save for that bobbing head of hers.

It occurred to me that I should call the cops and report the incident. I hesitated. Those guys could recognize me. For God’s sake, I was in a wheelchair on a well-lit sidewalk,and they were in the shadows.

Besides, what kind of idiot gets caught up with a couple of thugs like that? Probably just a family dispute among criminals anyway. And if the cops did … well, these guys might be off the street for a night but they’d be on the lookout the next.

And what about Ms. Door-in-your-Face? Why didn’t she call? She could at least run.

And why don’t the police at least patrol this area once in a while?

I don’t ask a lot, and I don’t expect charity, pity or any of those other self-indulgent sentiments from others, so why shouldn’t I expect not to be expected to show them to anybody else?

For Sally, yes I would. Definitely!

For a stranger, why? It was a stranger who put me in this damn chair. What do I care—why should I care—about a stranger if it means risking my own—

It was Sally’s ring tone. As soon as I answered, she noticed a difference in my voice and immediately asked what was the matter.

By this point, I was fully committed to the belief, reached by a more or less systematic reductio ad nihil, so I answered, “Oh, nothing. It was really nothing.”

“What? What was really—”

“Nothing. I’m just real tired that’s all. Think I could cash that rain check?”