When you are far away,
farther than home,
and your brightness is fading
like color on leaves:
can you still hear me
When you are far away,
farther than home,
and your brightness is fading
like color on leaves:
can you still hear me
Sophomore year in high school there was this teacher, Mr. Martello who taught American literature. He had this energy about him when reading Emily Dickenson or something jarring from Edgar Allen Poe; his eyes would brighten and he’d sway his hands as if conducting an orchestra. He taught me about Emerson’s lead in the transcendentalist movement and Thoreau’s adventures living at Walden Pond. He once handed out a picture of 35-year-old Walt Whitman standing in a field of grass wearing a black-top hat with a hand on his hip. He then spent the entire hour sharing stories about the war and how Whitman sought out hospitals in D.C to help the wounded. And how Whitman was one of the firsts to change the style of poetry, breaking away from traditional formats; no rhyme or meter. Like a man soaring through the sky and flying as if he were a gust of wind, Whitman wrote freely!
I was fascinated with Mr. Martello. Not in a romantic kind of way, but in a way in which I wanted to learn as much as I possibly could from him. Pick his brain and all that.
It was clear, Mr. Martello was cautious about me approaching him every day after class. At first, he always made sure to stand on the opposite side of the desk. He wouldn’t maintain eye contact for too long. And sometimes, he quickly packed his briefcase to shorten our discussion, suggesting he had somewhere else to be.
But as I kept approaching, asking questions about Ezra Pound and imagism and Sylvia Plath’s role in confessional poetry, Mr. Martello eased up, realizing my intentions were strictly platonic and geared only towards learning.
My mother, some would say was sweet and kind and caring, but I knew the real her, and trust me, she was no saint. She was evil. Criminal-like even.
Growing up as the youngest girl of three older brothers was like being raised in a hermitage. While my brothers played football and hockey and were allowed to do whatever they pleased, other than school, I had little contact with the outside world.
After dinner and on weekends, my brothers watched TV or played video games, while my mother made me clean the bathrooms, vacuum the bedrooms, and pick all the weeds out of her garden. She made me set and clear the table and do the dishes every night. She made me make mine and my brothers beds each morning. She only let me watch an hour of TV before having to go to sleep. She let me read, but first she had to make sure what I read was appropriate by her standards. I often daydreamed about my favorite passages from The Bell Jar, The House on Mango Street, and A Farewell to Arms, while being forced to read the slim religious pamphlets and hymnals my mother forced upon me.
It felt like my mother had fastened a tourniquet on my imagination. And after
she refused to let me go to junior prom with Matt Alvey, the leader of the French club who spoke the language beautifully, almost poetically, I had had enough of her. She must be stopped. And since my father never stood up for me, and my brothers barley acknowledged my existence, it was up to me to figure out a way to end this monstrosity so that like Whitman, I too could be wild, carefree and dive head first into the breeze.
It was a Friday after school in June. While all the other girls in my class were at the hair salon getting ready for the dance, and Matt Alvey, who I was sure at the moment was retrieving Becky Silverman’s corsage from The Flower Pot on main street, I pretended to do homework at the kitchen table. But really, I was making a list, coming up with different ways to enact revenge on my mother.
An entire page of my history notebook was dedicated to the things my mother loved. She loved church and all her stupid friends. She loved gardening, all the colorful flowers circling our house. She loved lighting candles, especially the vanilla-smelling ones. She loved styling her hair and bought expensive products she’d never let me use.
The question was this: What did she love so much that it would devastate her if I took it away?
It was just her and I alone in the house that night. Dad was having dinner with my Uncle. Who knew where my brothers were. My mother was upstairs doing God knows what. And I was eating a chunk of cheddar at the table when it came to me:
There was a half-bottle of bleach in the laundry room left over from washing my brother’s sheets last night. Before I could give it a second thought, I dropped the cheese on my plate and ran to retrieve it. Pulling the cabinet doors open, I immediately found the bottle. I read the warning label: Caution – do not drink. If ingested, seek medical attention immediately.
What if I slipped just a little into my mother’s tea? Just a little bit every day. For weeks. Maybe months. What if I didn’t contact any medical help? People die all the time and sometimes no one knows the reason.
I ran into the kitchen with the bleach tucked under my shirt.
“Mom,” I yelled from the bottom of the stairs. “I’m making tea. Do you want some?”
“Sure. I’ll be down in a few.”
My heart began to beat through my chest loud enough for me to hear it. Grabbing the teapot off the stove, I filled it with water, then placed it over the flame. Reaching into the cabinet, I took out a green mug. I poured some bleach into it, tapping my foot in a frenzy while waiting for the water to boil. Suddenly, I heard the thump of Mom’s feet making their way down the stairs.
I couldn’t do it.
I thought of Esther from The Bell Jar. I kept seeing the image of her body floating atop the water. Her perpetual desire to end her life. I had barely begun mine. I wasn’t ready for it to be over.
As fast as I could with shaky hands, I took the mug and dumped the bleach into the drain. I rinsed the glass with hot water, then filled it with soap, and then rinsed it with hot water over and over again.
By the time my mother made her way into the kitchen, the green mug had been placed in the dishwasher along with the other dirty dishes that needed to be washed.
“Steph,” she said. “What’s wrong? Why are you sweating?”
I turned to her. “I feel sick.”
“Go lay down on the couch,” she said. “Geez, you’re such a burden.”
Today in class Mr. Martello told us all about Margaret Fuller. How she was born in Massachusetts in 1810 to a lawyer/politician father, who’d been disappointed she had not been born a boy. Yet instead of sending Margaret into the kitchen to cook with her mother, or out in the yard to beat-out the rugs, wash clothes and clean glass lanterns; Timothy raised his daughter in his den, homeschooling and educating her with a laborious course study.
At three-in-a-half-years-old Margaret was reading and writing. At four, she knew arithmetic. Before she reached five, she knew English and Latin grammar. Timothy brought his daughter up to read all sorts of books from ancient history, political philosophy, travel, biographies, novels, all the great European authors and playwrights, and so on.
He had told Margaret, “To excel in all things should be your constant aim. Mediocrity is obscurity.”
At age ten, Margaret was learning French. At eleven, she was studying Italian and attending dance school with an exhilarating sense of how alive she really was.
In the forty years of her short-lived life, Margaret Fuller excelled as an author, editor, journalist, literary critic, educator, advocate to the Transcendentalists, social reporter, women’s rights activist, and political revolutionist.
It was Friday night and I was stuck home with a list of chores my mother left for me to tend to. Meanwhile my brothers were binge-drinking at the pep-rally for their big game tomorrow. And my parents were out to dinner with their church friends like they were every third Friday of the month.
I was sitting at the table with my laptop, filling out college applications. My top three choices were: Berkeley, Stanford and Harvard – all three having a concentration in American Literature after 1865. I knew I was ahead of the game, only being in the tenth grade, but I didn’t see the harm in starting the process early. I had the grades to get into any college I wanted. At least that’s what Miss Sherman, my guidance counselor had told me.
My parents, on the other hand, said they expected me to stay home after graduating high school. Unlike my brothers who were going to North Eastern – all three of them. My parents wanted me to attend community college, get an associate’s degree, then meet a nice guy and marry him. I balled my eyes out right then and there. I told them I wanted to go away to school. They told me, if I left, I’d be on my own. They would offer me no financial help for tuition, or for a place to live.
But I had a plan. And other than that, Miss Sherman said she’d help too. She was really ticked-off when I told her my parents intended to marry me off at twenty. She’d said, in this day and age? That’s ludicrous. Then her and I sat at the computer and began researching all the different types of grants I could apply for. She said I could probably get a scholarship.
I glanced at the clock on the microwave: 7:30. I expected my parents’ home after nine. That gave me plenty of time. I slapped my laptop shut and made my way up the stairs to their bedroom. First thing I did was flip the top of their mattress over. I was hoping to find the thick envelope full of cash I’d been skimming off-the-top over the past several months. But this time, when I flipped the mattress over, there was no envelope.
The mattress plopped down against the bed. Where could the money be? I began poking around their dressers, looking under piles of folded clothes, rummaging through their sock drawers, their underwear drawers. I still couldn’t find anything.
I opened the wooden chest below the window. It was full of stacks of photo albums and some clothes. A pair of cut-off jeans with a red heart stitched on the side and the name Nellie sewn in the middle was folded on top of one particular photo album. I reached in, pulling out both the album and shorts.
I knew Nellie was the sister my mother had lost years ago. I pulled off my jeans, slipped the shorts on to see if they fit. They were a little loose around the waist, but I kept them on anyway. I sat beside the chest and opened the photo album, which was full of pictures of my Aunt Nellie. Her and my mother looked an awful lot like twins. I had to look real close to make sure I could tell them apart.
Aunt Nellie also looked like a ton of fun. A whole page was full of pictures of her and my mother in flashy scarves, puckering and posing like models into the camera. I peeled a picture off the page to get a closer look. Was this really my mother? I’d never seen her smile that way before. Her lips were red, her eyes wide open, her grin stretched ear to ear. I wondered if she’d be a different mother, a better one if my Aunt Nellie were still alive.
I continued flipping through the pages, stopping when I got to Grandma Ethel. It was way before the lung cancer caught up to her, and she still had a head full of salt-and-pepper hair. In the picture, she was sitting at the kitchen table with a cigarette in her hand, her face scrunched into a sourpuss. She looked like a real bitch. That’s probably where my mother gets it.
I smacked the album shut and stood to change back into my own jeans. No sooner had I slid them up my legs, I noticed another picture face down on the floor. I leaned over and picked it up. It was a photo of the six of us at the shore. I’d forgotten all about the times my family and I had spent at the beach; we rented a house there every summer. The picture was of us sitting together on a picnic table, barbecuing outside by the water. I’d been sitting on my father’s lap, eating a piece of corn. My brothers sat beside my mother. I remembered being so annoyed with her that day; my brothers being ten-years-old and still, my mother cut their chicken into tiny squares for them to eat. Not much has changed, I thought, as I tossed the photo onto the floor.
I kicked the chest with my foot, threw myself onto the bed, and screamed into a pillow. I sat up and threw the pillow at the dresser. I jumped off of the bed and ran over to it when I spotted my mother’s jewelry box. If my parents wanted to be sneaky and hide their money from me, I’d just take something else.
Inside the box I found a row of rings. Slipping one on each of my fingers, I held my hands out in front of me to see which one I liked the most. The silver one with the coral-pink background. The white face of the woman in the foreground. If I remembered correctly, it was the ring Grandma Ethel had given my mother in the hospital before she died. My mother used to wear this ring all the time. She slept with it on, even showered with it. Then one day, out of nowhere, it was no longer on her finger. I thought she might have lost it.
Well, here it is. And it’s mine now. My mother would be devastated when she couldn’t find it.
Tomorrow after the game, I’ll have one of my pathetic brothers drop me off in town. I’ll have to pretend to be getting a manicure or something, but then, once he drives away, I’ll switch directions and walk straight to the pawnshop.
From Sunday March 5th – March 30th my poem “It’s written on the back of my hand” is exhibited at the Luman Winter Gallery at the New Rochelle Library.