I’ve always been able to see faces in things. Yes, of course in clouds, like the ones that trail into my view from the bay window, the purple and pink sea horses and scoop-necked swans swimming across a windy sky while I listlessly watch the UPS truck trying to get down the driveway. But I sometimes freak out my friends when I describe the green man in the woods or the child’s face in the dark green holly leaves. Layla says I should go back to school to get my art degree, implying that cutting hair isn’t artistic enough.
My mom told me once that people like me were always women. She had never heard of any men having this thing I have. I tend to think of my strange quirk as an unrealized superpower, but I haven’t figure out what that exactly is yet. I used to do searches for these quirks on the internet every minute of every day, but it’s gotten harder, and the internet doesn’t really help – maybe it was different around Y2K, but now there’s so much online that touts magical abilities alongside conspiracy theories that I figured it’s just crawling with wannabes and misinformation. I mean, if you were looking for someone from your tribe and you typed SEED PEOPLE into a google search, you probably would only find a generous helping of Q-Anon invitations and wholesome gardener catalog links.
That’s what Mom calls it anyway. Seed People. Since I graduated from college and moved back home, we don’t talk about it very often. And even though she never got it, she thinks her mom might have had it. Because that’s where she first heard the term.
I tend to hole up on my own in winter and begin the process of searching for people like me again every spring. I consider moving, since I’m a hair stylist and can find a job most anywhere, but I want to stick close to my mom since she has been mostly alone since Stepdad passed. Sometimes the yearning to connect with others like me looms large, and other times I treat it like menstrual cramps. Eating chocolate takes the edge off things.
Mom spends a lot of time taking care of my grandfather. He and I don’t get along. He’s mean to my mom, so I’m not as respectful as I could be, obvs.
Whenever I’m forced to go to his house for a holiday or birthday, sooner or later he tells me I’m oversensitive. My grandfather thinks my strange quirk is all balderdash. I know this because my mom used to counsel me every time we’d go to visit (mostly Thanksgiving and Christmas) that we weren’t to speak of it. While I readjust my cap, Mom looks at me directly for a second and then pulls the visor down just a little more, pats me on the shoulder and marches us in. She thinks my grandmother had what I have in spades, and it caused some trouble a long time ago. It seems to make sense because every so often, Grandad says, “You remind me of your grandmother. You have her forehead.”
Sitting in his favorite recliner, he likes to turn the TV up loud to hear. He’s always watching Fox News and my mom keeps turning the volume down. From where I stand in the hallway, she looks exhausted. My grandfather is fixated on the television, always near a boiling point anger wise.
My mom stays quiet around him, keeps her eyes on her plate at dinner. He’s yucking it up about when the deer come into his yard, laughing about one of the bucks getting his antlers stuck in the garden netting. I start crying because I had just read an article about marine life getting stuck in nets accidentally and how most of them perish. Grandad just asks, what’s wrong with me.
Mom seems mostly content with her book club and her greenhouse. She’s really good with growing things from seed. COVID has been hard on everyone. I can’t remember when Mom started adding bourbon to her rooibos, but judging by the empty glass bottles, I think she upped her game recently this year. We now have to drive to a recycle center about every two weeks.
I tend to bake a lot to ease my anxiety. Since I was in my late teens, I had regular dreams about hiding or trying to get away from someone, something. In many of them, I am in the dining room that has a sliding glass door to the back porch. I can’t shut the curtains fast enough. The drapes are heavy, and the pull cord gets stuck. A shadow appears on the porch, and I am panicking to put the long thick drapes between us. When I told her, Mom showed me her books, and I found in a passage by the folklorist Clarissa Pinkola Estes that most all women go through an initiation into our developing psyches that helps us to learn we must be careful of the wolf from "Little Red Riding Hood," or a constructed version of him. It is part of some intuitive knowing that puts women in more of a precarious life than men. But I don’t think these dreams are part and parcel of my growing pains.
Mom says she used to have dreams like that but not so much anymore, in part, perhaps, because of the drinking. I tell her I’ll go with her to an AA meeting. She shrugs and says she’ll think about it, but usually when Spring comes and she can get her hands in the soil, she’s certain that she’ll feel much better.
My best friend, Kate, and I met in middle school.
One morning I’m happily swimming at the school indoor pool. It’s Olympic size and our team has won a lot of medals. You have to be a good planner about signing up for a lane because usually the boys who made it to state finals get dibs when they want to swim. I’m twenty minutes into a good session of freestyle, although my left ear is still bothering me from last week’s swimmer’s ear when I notice that the boy named Thomas who I have a crush on is swimming in the lane next to me. His hair is super short but sort of glossy as it springs up in tiny shiny barbs. He doesn’t have a swim cap on. Like I do. I stop for a second to adjust my goggles, but suddenly I feel the blush of my forehead coming on, so I pull my cap down a little farther. After another ten minutes, he’s at the end of his lane drinking water, and he smiles at me as I pull up next to him. I adjust my cap. It has an ugly pink flower on it.
He starts talking to me! God, my goggles are so dorky. I pull them up to my head. But then in a moment of pure dread and in a twilight zone eerie fashion, I see his eyes slowly move to my forehead. I give him a quick ta-ta, make a hopefully cool and mermaid-like departure diving back into the water. I swim under as long as I can. My lungs yelling at me, I finally surface about halfway down the lane. I think he’s gone. I climb out using the silver chrome ladder and sit with my towel. I’m about to take off my cap when I see Thomas again near the first aid office and he’s pointing his new shiny Apple iPhone at me. One of his friends walks over, and together they look through the camera lens as he turns it sideways and silently points at me in the pool. I leave the pool room and can still hear their laughter echoing like a ball across the different sides of this hollow cavern, and head to the lockers, white towel over my head and shoulders.
Now you must understand this wasn’t any old crush. I’ve loved Thomas since the fifth grade when he sat next to me in Mrs. Kale’s class. He laughed at one of my silly remarks in Algebra one afternoon, and I guess that was enough to send me over the edge. I had fantasies of him coming to the playground calling out my name during a storm, complete with a threatening tornado in the background. He looked so relieved when I jumped down from the handlebars without a scratch. I went straight into his arms, and he kissed me deeply.
The cool air makes me shiver. I’m in tears now, so instead of going to the locker room where girls from a different grade are already dressing out for PE class, I run into one of the coaches’ offices and slam the door. There’s a girl who is standing behind the desk putting on what looks like a huge cast around her torso. She looks as shocked and panicked as I do.
“Can you leave?” She sputters. I start crying. No, I really can’t, I’m attempting to say to her.
Her stance sort of shifts. She puts down the cast which I later find out is a back brace for scoliosis. She was putting it on after gym class trying to avoid other classmates’ gazes. I tell her what happened, leaving out the part about my forehead. She instructs me that he is not supposed to take a photo of me without my consent. It doesn’t make me feel better, but I am somewhat soothed that she would tell me that. We become friends.
Next day, there’s talk of Thomas showing a film in his backyard. Called freaks who swim, a scientific approach. Thank God that never happens, but then I hear about a picture circulating of me sitting by the pool with my stupid cap on and with it some made-up song about the gleaming giant with the light of a thousand suns.
Kate and I can’t get access to the pic because we’re not part of the friend group that Thomas circles with. But then a girl who is pretty and new and polite in my science class shows it to me. Layla. She says nobody really thinks it’s anything. It could be the sun reflecting off your wet swim cap, she suggests. Since I’m obviously soaking wet, my forehead in the photo isn’t quite the spectacle that Thomas hoped. Picture looks a little like a polaroid, kind of last century and out of focus. Fine by me. I was surprised and relieved how little attention anyone paid to the photo. And Thomas looked like a jerk.
Kate, Layla and I become close after that. I told them I thought Thomas was making fun of my birthmark that’s right there on the center of my forehead – that’s what I told them was in the middle of my forehead. Layla said she read somewhere that birthmarks are the scar of how you died in a past life. Huh.
Kate is very responsible, very frugal. She has since become a graphic artist. She is best known for designing logos for left-leaning politicians. My other friend, Layla, is almost the opposite. Layla is the kind of friend that will not only encourage you to find your soul mate and invest in regular yoga retreats to Costa Rica to learn about the warrior energy within, but she will also single-handedly craft herbal bouquets to help open the psyche to visions of past lives. She calls them soul retrievals.
Kate rolls her eyeballs. But when Layla gets into one of her “spaces” and uses phrases like, “It’s, you know, a ripening of the soul kind thing,” there’s not much you can say in response. Of the two of them, if I was ever going to share about my forehead situation, it would be with Layla. But I falter every time I try.
Somehow the three of us work. I think I’m a bit of a buffer between the two and that’s okay. Together we make a trusted tribe. Layla was the first to get COVID among us. She’s a little more trusting – or naïve – than Kate. Kate basically would not leave her house, an old farmhouse on the edge of town where her grandmother also lives. Kate is the kind of person who dresses like a city girl but says she’s pretty content to live where she’s twenty minutes away from everything by car.
“Guys, there’s an immersive Van Gogh exhibit coming to DC next week,” Layla shares over our group chat.
Nope, says Kate.
Layla: They are limiting the number of people and you need to show ID with your VAX card.
I’ll go, I say.
If it’s not a full moon, I’m thinking as I check my lunar calendar app. That’s when the light on my forehead streams most brightly.
I figure that part of why Kate is so careful is because her grandmother had a lung transplant a couple of years back and is high risk for any COVID complications. Layla knows this but she still tries to get us to re-enter the land of the living.
Try me in March when the numbers go down.
I have ventured over to Kate’s house a couple of times this winter with a good mask and a meal in tow. I don’t stay long. I can see the telltale cardboard boxes from Amazon deliveries stacked up near the back door. Other than that, the house is Bohemian farmhouse. Complete with macramé plant holders in ceiling corners – with dying plants furling brown in tendrils along the beadwork – and paisley patterns in pillows and drapes throughout. I’ve been informed that the stand-alone garage at the end of the drive is off limits. Kate infers that it is packed full of totes and art supplies, less knickknacks and more retired artist materials. Kate has been incredible in her ability to transition buying into selling via eBay sales. The grandmother has had some luck with letting go of her stuff and therefore has become a moneymaker for the grandmother. Some of the same boxes arrive with goods that look like what gets shipped days later.
The grandmother Rhonda, surely a name that inspires visions of bellbottom jeans, gauze flowered shirts and headbands with bare feet, is in her eighties and usually has a black cashmere poncho around her even in late spring. But she’s got piercing green eyes that tell you she’s not done yet.
She was once an established artist, of paintings mostly, with a couple of phases of sculpting thrown in. Although she and Kate have given me tours of her utility closet that still bears the signs of her early acrylic career, she won’t part with them. Every once in while she’ll pull out a painting on stretched framed canvas that’s about four by five feet. This one is an obvious influence of Monet, impressionistic gardens of soft pastels. And you can’t really tell what it looks like unless you are ten feet away.
Then there is the uterine pink silken flower phase of Georgia O’Keeffe, who supposedly hadn’t intended for them to be representations of vulvas, so Rhonda tells me. I give an appropriate measure of time studying Rhonda’s work. It dawns on me, as I look around at the boxes and crates that are piled like large toy blocks that prevent any straight beeline to the door, that all of Rhonda’s stuff is her artistic creations. How do you live a life creating things that never sell? Kate tells me later that Rhonda used to have bonfires of the work she didn’t like or wouldn’t sell. But nowadays the pieces she created over the course of her life have become like children. Hence the stand-alone garage for storage.
There are birds and small animal tracks in the yard from last night’s snow. The view from the back window is exquisitely wintry. Trees stand in front of a stretched blue sky. All the clouds are gone, and a sunny cold day has set in. Behind me out the front window, a delivery truck is now apparently stuck on my driveway trying to get out. Did I mention it’s a little icy, too? I call in at work, but then receive a message that the hair salon is closed today. Thank God. Wearing a mask all day every day has made my face break out.
Most often when I’m dying to tell Layla or Kate about my newest discovery, my seediness, I downplay it and frame it as a dream. “I had such a crazy dream last night. I was at an art exhibit, and I knew what the pictures looked like in the next room before we walked in. I was the painter looking at my art on the walls of galleries.” Layla immediately declares why she’s always right to drag us to museums. “I mean it’s not the Louvre, but DC does have a few good ones.” Kate just nods and lets it slide.
These occurrences seem to happen near the full moon, which is when I’m also super moody. When I get into meditation practice and stick with it, I journal for hours and then close my eyes to let the pictures come into my mind. Sometimes there is action within these meditations. I can look down at my oil-and-pastel stained hands in my mind’s eye at a wooden palette in my right hand and a paint brush in my left. Funny, though I am right-handed. I see the colors and the form come together. First the background grays and blues, then the buildup of the orange and onions in a brass bowl.
I have stopped looking for the artist that made these paintings, like he who created the one with still life of food in a bowl in muted tones, or she who created the oil painting of children at their mother’s knee. Some are easy to find online these days. But it’s never proven worthwhile. When I’ve reached out to connect with any of the ones who are still living, there is really nothing to say other than I like your work. What am I doing, hoping they’ll become a friend and we will share a semblance of sameness in our strange inheritance? That has happened zero times. When I first came home from college, I went to an artist’s showing at a gallery downtown, one I have seen in one of the meditations, and when I showed up, the woman became very reactionary to my compliments. She literally began to back away from me. I could tell she thought I was a crazy fan. Well, her art wasn’t THAT good.
Kate rarely drinks. Except tonight.
Kate’s sister, Veronica, was late to the service which is at the gravesite. The baby in her arms won’t stop crying, so after a while she cringes a goodbye and exits. Kate’s aunt leans over to me and says, “I’ll bet she gave the wee one a pinch so she wouldn’t have to sit through the memorial.” And rolls her eyes.
We head back to Kate’s house to gather with a small group of friends. Luckily, we’ve planned it for outside, in case people are worried about the virus. A few of Rhonda’s old friends who are still local come and stand in a circle amongst themselves at the memorial to pass a bottle of bourbon. Kate is included in their salute.
Now back at the farmhouse, Kate can barely walk and vomits over the railing while I’m trying to get her up the front porch steps. The poor petunias in a pot were not spared whatever Kate had eaten earlier. The twilight blue-violet in the western sky shows Venus next to a setting crescent. Kate goes inside and I tell her to go lie down. I promise that Layla and I will show people where to put the food offerings and make coffee. Kate manages to emit an emphatic demand through her slurring speech, “Don’t let anyone have her artwork!” I assure her I will do my best to keep people from taking anything.
It happened quickly. Three weeks ago, Rhonda ended up in the hospital with an upper respiratory infection that turned out to be COVID. Took a ridiculously long time to get a positive test because every drugstore was out of them. Poor thing was on a ventilator for a week. She passed in the night. Kate never got to say goodbye. With COVID restrictions, she couldn’t even hold her grandmother’s hand. The nurses were kind but strict, exhausted from their own battles in health care.
Kate is convinced she gave her grandmother the illness. “You can’t know that for sure,” I offer. Kate did go out, mostly to the grocery store, but there were occasions in the last month where she spent time with friends in masks. “Rhonda wasn’t at home all the time.” She went out. But Kate will always feel guilty. She’ll carry it with her for years.
We begin to go out a little more as the weather brightens and we can sit outside. We go to a French restaurant that used to rarely be available for reservations. I like it for the small plates and the best French fries “frites” with aioli sauce on the side.
One Friday night it’s pouring rain and the outdoor seating is closed, so we decided to meet inside if there is no wait. Before COVID hit, our favorite place to sit was at an oval table with one long L shaped seat that had tall, velvet-tufted cushions for the backside against the wall. Lucky us, that table is available. I am the first one to arrive.
As soon as I sit down, I freeze. I see her face as I’m taking off my scarf. The gold hue of the cushions matches what would have been her hair color when she was younger. Even in her eighties, Rhonda had managed to maintain those blonde streaks. I slowly move to hang my coat on a little hook next to a column by my seat, not taking my eyes away from what must be a hallucination. My eye catches her little round face in the gold-tufted cushion.
It’s Rhonda’s face. Normally, when I see the imagination-inspired shapes, like children’s faces in the ivy, I don’t recognize them as actual people I know. I shuffle my backside as I blink at the face of Rhonda who is staring straight at me. The table between us, just salt and pepper and someone setting two glasses of water down but not leaving. Someone is trying to get my attention. He repeats himself. “Three of you?” I nod and keep staring across the table. Another glass is poured and set down. The person with the pitcher walks away.
Even though it would make it difficult to keep an eye out for my friends, I am consumed by the face in the gold cushion that has begun to open and close her mouth, as if trying out a new jaw.
“Rhonda.” My eyes well up and my throat constricts. I can’t breathe for a minute. She smiles, acknowledging my obvious surprise and grief. I’m sure this is not different at all from Marley giving a rare magnanimous nod when acknowledged by Scrooge near the hearth on Christmas Eve.
She interrupts my thoughts. “I always knew you were different, Charlene.” She glances past my shoulder, and I turn quickly. The women entering the restaurant are not my friends, and I reflect on my sense of relief as I turn back to face the Rhonda-phantom. “When I first went to San Francisco, I met someone like you. That had that same energy. What do you call that thing you have?”
“I don’t really have a name for it,” I stammer. “Who was she? What was her name?” I ramble off a couple of names, including my grandmother’s for the small number of people supposedly who have our sameness.
“It was a he.” She says it dismissively. If she had hands, she would have emphasized the thought. “He was seventeen years old, had just run away when I knew him. We all lived in Golden Gate Park. He used to have that same thing on his forehead – every morning it would pop up like that little blue pilot light on a stove – until he would cover it up with a cap or his hair if he could get it to do right. It was easy to find him on those nights we spent together.”
I sit back in my chair. Recross my legs. I find it hard to believe her, but who am I to argue. I’ve not only never heard of a man having this, no, more than that, my mom said that her mother told her that only women have this. The transmission of images, her mother Sylvia Fisher told her, was for women only. Said it came from the ovaries. Truth is, we don’t know where it comes from.
But I know exactly what she is referring to.
When I was thirteen, my period woke me up early, and when I realized I was about to stain the sheets, I moved quickly out of bed and went to grab a tampon in the bathroom, change my underwear. Blearily, I reached for the mirrored medicine cabinet above the sink and thought the blue tile on the walls had created a stripe across the sink. But it wasn’t the blue tile. It was my forehead. It was bright as a lighthouse beacon in the black of night. I rubbed at it – did I break one of those glow light bracelets on my face last night? Rubbing only made it worse. When I touched it, it felt strange, not painful but tender. It was like when you press on a fresh cut that’s been bandaged. I blinked it away a couple of times, but it was still there.
I couldn’t go to school. Told my mom I had horrible cramps. I couldn’t tell her yet what was happening to me. I thought I had a weird period-related disease. Putting makeup over it was irritating, like I’d eaten too much cotton candy from the town fair. Concealer did help a little but eventually, I became the girl in school that always wore baseball caps after that.
The velvet cushion speaks. “But the crazy thing is, it wasn’t the first time I’d met him–”
“Ugh, the traffic through town was horrible!” A blue jacket collapses the specter, and she is gone, the plunging of a brightly lit gold ship into a dark sea of rain-resistant nylon. Kate has arrived.
“I had a dream about your grandmother,” I say, sitting back in my chair trying to mentally save what I just heard. Layla soon joins us. And we begin to drink in Rhonda’s honor. It was, according to Kate, one of her favorite haunts.
Layla is a mean drunk.
One night she and I go out to hit the bars in DC. Cool to see all the outdoor lights and stand-up tents with little tables set up in the streets, closed off to traffic. Cars having to be rerouted. Why don’t we live outside more often?
She’s just finished telling me about the grad schools she’s been applying to while she flirts with boys via wandering glances over her shoulder. Some of them are men. I mean they’re good-looking, but they look closer to forty than thirty. When I crinkle my nose at the latest one who has a beard that’s turning white, she scoffs, “Love is love is love. Don’t be such a prude, Miss I-don’t-date-but-will-judge.”
I am not taking the bait. When she gets like this, I try to get calmer as if I’m speaking to a child who needs some juice and a nap. But sometimes, like tonight, it only challenges her.
“You’re such a chicken shit!” And heads turn immediately at the bar, curious to see the recipient of such an insult. I’m blushing now and go to the bathroom. She continues talking to my backside. I can feel her taunts in my shoulder blades. “You’re all, I’m deep and into the moon and I am good at writing, and I’m so smart – but then you don’t do shit! I mean, you got a degree in communications – and you’re a hairdresser!”
I continue to the bathroom and debate which set of doors I’m going to sneak out of. When I come out of the 12th street entrance, I feel the shifting night breeze in my hair. Layla is suddenly there, black tears streaming down her face. She is crashing and with crashing comes paranoia. “How can you leave me all alone? I low-key am not feeling terribly excited about my future. In fact, I’m scared shitless.” I calmy point out that she had three men gaping at her feet a moment ago while she sat atop her bar-stool throne.
This is becoming more regular. We’re all stressed at the thought of autumn and more COVID. The whole world is. Layla is leaving for Vermont in August to attend a program for nursing. Of course, her parents are paying for her to go. Maybe her outbursts are a way to separate from me, her best friend since 9th grade.
I am often reminded that my friends don’t know the real me. The fears that surface when I’m away from home too long. Away from my mom who helps me keep all my extras under wraps.
But I wonder how long I will play it safe. All of us from our friend group in high school are either moving to larger cities or having babies. Neither of those are in my immediate future. Nor do I want them to be. Virginia is beautiful and busy in the fall and spring, but in summer everyone leaves town whenever possible because of the humidity and heat. By August, DC becomes a ghost town. I like the lesser of crowds. Why shouldn’t I stay and keep close to Mom?
Layla sends multiple texts the next day to apologize. I don’t answer her. Sooner or later, she will predictably call to talk, so I’ll wait for that instead.
The yearning comes strongly this dark moon, which is strange because it normally appears closer to the full moon. At least that’s what I’ve been able to deduce. So hard to know what makes it harsh. The best I can describe it is like it’s a pulling, a craving like when you give up sugar and three days later you taste a spoonful of Nutella or chocolate frosting right out of the container in the pantry behind the flour and baking soda, or you will die. Then you throw out all sugars. This yearning feels like the guilt-ridden urge to go to a nearby 7-11. Maybe I should take up smoking.
I go back to a practice that night I haven’t tried in a long time. When I close my eyes, red streaks of lightning play out some storm, but after a few minutes the flashes go silent, go dark. My heart, which has been racing, slows and my fingers pulsate. I breathe. I see a dirt road in my mind and it’s near a river that goes on and on. It’s autumn. There are mountains in the distance and birdsong near my ears. I have a satchel on my back. I pull at the straps and find my old backpack from college. Though I’m not directing my mind to do so, I open the front pocket, unzipped, expecting to find my laptop. But it’s an old journal instead. One that Mom accidentally threw away before I moved back home. It had insights of the yearning in it. Little notations and doodles on what patterns emerged.
Layla left for her nursing school last week. Things sort of went back to normal for us. We low-keyed the event as a chalk-it-up-to-anxiousness about separating.
My hiding-must-escape dreams return. I begin logging dreams in a new journal to see if there’s a time of the month or a time of year that they’re most prevalent. This last one was a doozy. In full living color, I am chased around a town for being part of a drug deal and finally find myself at some old woman’s house. I hide in her credenza underneath her cabinets of glassware.
I suggest to Kate that we should start going out regularly, especially if things are going to shut down for winter. I figure it is a symbiotic thing but let’s face it, the main reason I want to go back to Rhonda’s favorite restaurant every Friday is so that I might get the chance to chat with the Rhonda cushion again. I plan to arrive early every time, but work or traffic sometimes delays me, and this time Kate beats me there, two chardonnays at the ready and fresh bread with little dome-shaped butter pats on a plate beside her.
She senses my disappointment. “Sorry, did you want something other than white?”
“No, I’m good. Thanks.” She’s sitting in the gold cushioned seat along the wall. It is now our favorite table, table #22 (I asked the person who makes the reservations).
It happens. The cushion becomes long strands of blondish hair.
I’m gawking at the space by Kate’s right shoulder when I hear, “Any questions about the menu?” A young waiter is suddenly there refilling waters. Kate leans forward moving her glass to him, blocking any possible phantom face. He has a couple of long locks that fall forward as he looks down. Not long enough to be pulled back into a regulation ponytail but enough to catch our attention.
Kate sits up a little straighter. “Are the short ribs tender?”
“Oh, yes,” he replies. “They will melt in your mouth before giving your tongue a little kick.”
Kate titters. The waiter gives an almost imperceptible nod and walks away. Then I know. And I feel a flash of heat.
“Oh my god, you’re sleeping with him, aren’t you?”
Kate is blushing from her ears to her chest. I notice her blouse is unbuttoned to her sternum. Her camisole is black and lacey. “I was going to tell you, I swear. Tonight.”
I drink my chardonnay and tell her I’m happy for her. We move to Prosecco after that.
She decides she’s going to wait for the new boy, Patrick, to get off work, which doesn’t appear to be too far into the future by the evident empty tables now surrounding us. Even the bar has cleared out.
I ask, “Are you going to sell her artwork?”
“Not sure. Probably. There’s some lady who deals in posthumous art, sorta connected to an estate dealer. I might ask her to come appraise her stuff, just to see.”
We are so excited to meet Layla in New York City for her winter break. So much colder than DC, but we bring enough hats and mittens. Luckily, Kate’s friend Melanie who went with us has relatives that live in Hoboken but are in Florida over the weekend, so we get to stay there for free.
On the first night, Layla gets really sick, but instead of going back to the apartment, she just wants to keep partying. Every fifteen minutes she redoes her makeup and takes extraordinary selfies with diabolical almost acrobatic posing.
“Let’s go clubbing. Living Room is great. I can get us in with a promoter. Although you’ll have to put on something cuter.” She’s looking at my not-hot-enough jeans and sweater. “You know I’m totally on my own, so I’ve been saving for our trip like a little squirrel socking away nuts.”
I’m thinking I’m proud of her when we get to the first bar, and Layla pulls out her father’s credit card for drinks all around. Everybody toasts Layla, and Layla takes off her shoes and walks across the bar until the bouncer screams at her to get down. They tell us to leave. It’s starting to snow and my toes are cold. I’d rather huff it back to Hoboken by Uber or subway, but when we hear live music coming from another bar we pass by, Kate steers me and Layla away from the entrance before Layla can say anything. “No, that place is too sketchy.”
We find another bar that’s still serving food, and Layla orders oysters and mussels with shots. She starts Facetiming friends, and then she runs to the bathroom. When she comes back out, her makeup cannot hide how green she looks. She keeps rehashing her sickness to us and then starts eye-flirting with a man who is standing a few feet away. Every time I look back at him, he is one step closer. All this while Layla boasts on and on, “I’m a dietitian. I talk about this stuff all the time. Oysters and mussels. Mussels coming out through diarrhea and oysters coming up like vomit.” Then she smiles at the guy who’s now basically standing next to us. She proceeds to take a million selfies and then invites him to take a picture while telling us she’ll catch up with us tomorrow. Melanie looks very confused, but the three of us leave Layla to do as she wishes.
Kate thinks she is sick. Over text later: And why couldn’t she just go back to Mel’s place? I would have paid for our whole Uber to get her back.
I know. You know that guy she picked up was in for a scary ride. She still looked green when we left.
No, like mentally ill. I’ve never seen her drinking that out of control.
Kate begins to travel for work again. During the pandemic, she adopted two small dachshunds, Whiffle and Donut. I suggest getting a dog walker to come by, but a few days before she is going to leave for another business trip, she texts me excitedly, my sister is coming to watch the house!
Cool. Is she bringing her kids with her?
Kid, just one. Franklin.
Oh, of course, sorry.
NW. A cutie and yes, I think so. She doesn’t like it when he goes to his dad’s.
You’ve mentioned that. Good.
You mind swinging by while I’m gone to say Hi?
Just to say hi?
Of course, I know how to read in-between the lines.
Kate’s sister has issues. A month or two before she had the baby, Veronica sent out wedding announcements to rich relatives around the country. Relatives that everyone knew were too old to travel what with COVID and everything. Kate found out from one excited aunt and then learned that her sister hadn’t told Kate’s dad either. Veronica has a really bad relationship with him and their stepmom. I don’t even know if there ever was a wedding or if this was just a way to get money. Kate couldn’t answer for it either, to anyone. And from what I heard, Veronica received a lot of cash.
When there turned out to be no wedding, Kate called her sister to find out what was going on. Crickets. Then she gets evicted from her apartment. Kate told me later that her neighbors had complained about smells coming from her place. I have not inquired about what kind of smells they were.
I happily agree to stop by.
The first thing I notice is the smell of smoke as I arrive. Suddenly, I almost can’t move. My hands are shaking, and my heart starts palpitating. I get out of the car and try to call out but can barely speak. I walk up the steps to the front porch and I get a since of dread. Whiffle and Dread start barking as I step into the front foyer.
I enter the family room off the kitchen and see tiny piles of dog shit near the back door. A baby is nearby sitting up and chewing on a lamp cord on the floor to my right. I pick up the baby, who’s wearing little gray overalls and is bald except for one tiny brown curl pointing upwards on the back of his head. He also got one hell of a soggy diaper. We go to the kitchen. There’s a pot on the stove. A baby bottle with milk is in the pan and the burner is on, but there’s no water in the pan. Smoke is rising. I run for the stove and turn it off and move the pan but start to gag. Burning plastic surrounds my senses as the baby – what is his name? – is squirming to get out of my arms.
I head towards the family room, and I see Veronica on the couch waking up from the barking or to the stench. The baby, Franklin (yes, that’s it!), reaches for her and I set him down onto her chest. She lurches forward.
“Oh, hey, Veronica.” I try to be nonchalant. She’s trying to make sense of where she is and then peels one eye towards me in a squint.
“Oh, hi.” She sits up and immediately goes into mom mode. Smiles at Franklin, sniffs his bottom, gets up and changes his diaper. To me: “Sorry, what’s your name again?” And we start to chat as she is tending to him. She sees the melted bottle on the stove. “Shit.” She goes to the fridge with the baby in her arms. I begin to breathe again.
I take the dogs into the backyard. They do their business. I try to put them in the mudroom, but they begin to whine and bark. After a moment they settle down on two tiny, little fleecy dog beds.
I can tell by her silence Veronica is embarrassed. She’s standing at the fridge when she says, “I just had a dream about my grandmother. And I know this is going to sound strange, but I think you were there.”
I look up and over at her, a room away. And everything goes still. One hundred other Veronicas are standing in a line staring back at me, fading into the wall and pouring out into infinity. Like a funhouse room with one hundred mirrors where everything is reflected on itself in a dizzying display. I start to get lost in all those Veronicas but somehow focus on the one out of the multitude who is different than the others. I feel a little nauseated.
“You don’t have to look at me like that. I mean...what?”
I shake my head and blink. Veronica can read the signs or so she thinks. “Wow are you okay? This is where in the movies I would say, you look like you’ve just seen a ghost!” I nod and she gives a quick chuckle. She sets Franklin into an old wooden highchair and dumps a cup of cheerios on the tray plus some little gizmo that looks like a pacifier but holds mushed banana. Veronica walks over to me. “Just try to feel your feet on the floor.” I do and that helps. I get up and we sit together at the round table in the kitchen flanking Franklin. “I know what everyone thinks of me.” After a minute, “I’m not using. I swear. I’m just exhausted.”
I believe her.
I say, “I know how you feel.” I can tell that she’s curious, nodding at me while she tends to her toddler. I tell her about my forehead. I tell her about the yearnings. I tell her about Rhonda. I haven’t really put all of the things together before. I feel relief, and I start to cry a little. Franklin makes noises while he eats. I show her my forehead. Not much going on there. It’s only a first quarter moon.
“My grandmother?” I nod. The house is finally quiet. And then Franklin pounds the tray. Cheerios leap up. “Have you told Kate?”
“Not about Rhonda in the cushion.”
“That would be cool.” She pulls Franklin out of the chair, and we go out back to a pretty backyard that’s a little overgrown with weeds and high grass. Franklin picks up a ball. I get the dogs, and we hang out in the cool spring sunshine for a while.
When Franklin goes down for a nap in a playpen, we talk about Rhonda. “You know, when I was dating some loser. Yes, it was Franklin’s father, before I got the guts to move out, my grandmother used to tell me about some of her old boyfriends. She was part of the last leg of hippies from the seventies. She told me about a guy who always wore a little straw hat, even though he had gorgeous blond locks. Would take the hat off at night while they prowled Golden Gate Park. She told me he changed her life. She became an artist after that. Picked up charcoal, graphite pencils, acrylic, anything she could get her hands on.”
“What, what did he do?”
“He told my grandmother he could see all of her lifetimes spread out like a fan.”
I told her about the Veronica that was different than all other Veronicas. “How was it different, what was I doing?”
“You were holding a paintbrush instead of the baby and you had a different outfit on. Like a uniform.”
“Like a green and yellow uniform? Well, I’ll tell you a secret now, Miss Charlene. I was signed up to go into the army before I found out I was pregnant. Always had such weird periods. Got a positive test when I was six months along.”
I’m laughing as I sputter, “So, I like, saw your alternative universe?”
She’s not laughing as she says, “Yes I think that’s exactly what you saw.” Another pause. “You aren’t going to tell my sister about the stove situation, are you?”
We walk around the perimeter of the backyard with the new shoots of mint vining around raised beds. Everything is about to burst in rebirth. “I miss her,” says Veronica.
“Your grandmother? Me too,” I reply.
“I guess I was angry at her for leaving the house to Kate. But now I kind of understand why.”
“Who knows, she may be with us right now in the form of that blue pillow on the porch swing.” It felt good to laugh.
I promise to send her a picture of the blush on my forehead on the next full moon.
Veronica sends me links to different articles on strange light like the ghost light of Joplin, Missouri, and the bioluminescent Bay outside of Puerto Rico. She also used to study colors as a source of magic and ghosts, thinking they might choose a particular family. I always felt like whatever this was had to be genetic and brought on by puberty.
“Your grandfather is coming to live with us.” My mother told me this one day while we were outside her greenhouse. She only tells me difficult news when we’re outside, I’ve deducted, as if my responses might crack the drywall or something.
Not a lot of time went by from when she told me to when he moved in. Mostly just him and a few suitcases at first. We were going to take our time selling his house and going through his stuff. But we don’t know what state of mind he will be in, day-to-day. We gave him the room upstairs in the back that used to be Stepdad’s office.
He is smaller. And bald. He looks like a little elf version of himself. I walk in and he says with a smile, “Hey kiddo. Call me Hank.” He acts like he knows me but can’t remember my name. Mom says this happens when people have small, continuous strokes that lead towards dementia.
I go swim at the bubble-covered swim house down the road more and more to avoid being around him. I try to get Mom to go swimming with me, but she says her greenhouse is enough of a refuge. “Oh,” she calls after me, “and I’ve shut off cable...just in case.” I think about some of the shows I might miss out on but feel like it’s completely worth it.
He seems nicer. He hums a lot and has a laugh like a giggle. It is bizarre but better than what I had seen before. The only thing that seems to bother Mom is Grandad’s drinking. If he has wine or any alcohol, he is completely unintelligible. She starts hiding the booze and then finally just stops having it in the house. One day I come in from swimming and he winks at me. He calls me Sylvia, my grandmother’s name. Mom tells me I should tell her if anything untoward happens. “Oh, I will definitely tell you about any untowards,” I holler.
You remind me of your grandmother...
Then one day in August, she tells me they are selling Granddad/Hank’s house, and I should go over to pick out what I want.
They live like the Amish. Although there is a large TV over the fireplace mantle, shelves for books are mostly bare and there are very few appliances. I wander around the old house thinking about my grandmother, mostly. The little desk station she had in the kitchen with the little stool by the landline phone is still there. Her yellow pages are gone. Some faded pictures are pincushioned into the cork board on the wall. There’s one of my grandmother with her horse, Sunny. She was happiest with animals. Until she died, she always had dogs. I thought to ask Granddad once if he would get another dog but then thought better about how miserable the dog might be. Though the photograph had paled from the years, I lean in to look for what I always look for in family photos. Hadn’t ever seen this picture before.
The gleam of the forehead.
It was there on Grandmother’s brow. Just barely. Could be a sunspot or weird angle, but I know exactly where it seeps from my own super-sensitive face. I touch the photo. My index finger covers her face completely, but I still imagine sending a message and begging the question.
Then I thought, why the hell not? I go hunting for what I want.
After about an hour I find something. There are boxes that Hank had not thrown out in their basement cellar. It is nice and cool down there. My bare feet go slap-slap against the unfinished floor.
I wish they had the forethought to store the stuff in plastic totes instead of cardboard boxes. The musty smell isn’t as bad as the dust. I notice early that these were my mom’s notebooks. Not what I was looking for, but it was a start. The pages are browned. I worked quickly because my nose starts to itch. I pull my shirt up over my nose. It helps a little with the smell anyway.
There are probably about five notebooks, and they seem to be a mishmash of school notes and art sketches. Some pages are faded doodles. You can see swirls of unicorn tales and the bodice of penciled gowns.
In the box I also find a psychology notebook. Some paragraphs appeared to be personal.
Rooted in trauma, personality disorders, narcissism... How does a family member survive a narcissistic parent? Very carefully, hahaha...
And more thoughts, taken more seriously: Must respond to their anger, rant with calm. Even tones. Don’t react. Don’t give them the energy power.
When parents fight...
I decide I don’t need to hear more of my mom’s thoughts. It feels invasive and I already knew the situation.
I decide to bring the box into the light of day. There is a rocking chair on the back porch. Late afternoon. Cicadas are calling each other. Gold light finds its footing above the tree line towards a woody lot. I drink some water and keep looking.
I didn’t expect Mom’s stuff to reveal much. I was hoping she would have written about her own mom.
You remind me of your grandmother.
Maybe there was more. I go back into the house. To the closet in the master bedroom. But then I remember that they kept Grandmother downstairs in a hospital bed for a few months before hospice came. She dictated stories to the nurse one time. She had been a music teacher for years and would make up stories to help kids remember things.
Every good boy does fine, every good boy is fine. Every ghost boy digs fennel...
Ooh, where are those? Did Mom bring them home?
The cabinet under the television has mounds of scrapbooks, photo albums. I remember making scrapbooks with my grandmother when I was little. I look through a few of the photo albums and sure enough, Grandmother wore hats. A lot. She had bandanas that covered her forehead, fancy sunhats for garden party dresses. But when she took pictures that were candid, I see right away that her hand is lifted above her eyes as if she is squinting into the camera. Or hiding her ghost light.
Some crows calling to each other across the backyard bring me back to the present.
I remember my grandmother wearing scarves like little headdresses at the end. Beautiful scarves, in silk and in peacock colors, to match her blue eyes.
I search the kitchen pantry. I search the dining room hutch. I am about to pick up the cardboard box and go home when I look at the piano bench in the living room. I lift it.
There are plenty of songbooks for classical pieces. Mozart, Rachmaninov. But there is also a tiny key at the bottom of the bench threaded by a small red ribbon.
It unlocks nothing. I bring it home along with the box and a small crate of framed photos and a few knickknacks. I find Mom going through some old journals labeled “gardening plans.” I show her the key and wordlessly she wanders down the hall to a drawer and hands me my grandmother’s old leather daytimer. It is one of those leather cases that could hold a replaceable calendar book. It has a tiny lock on the side, like a little gold padlock. I open it. It has a zipper to hold the contents. Inside is her engagement calendar 2002, six years before she died.
The calendar part is intact, but the penciled plans in the pages throughout are somewhat faded. The crème de la crème is the many fold slips of paper tucked throughout and in the little pockets in the front and back. They are mostly old recipes, stuff with Crisco as the secret ingredient, but also tiny pieces of poetry. The first word that I spot on one page is moonshine.
...Moonshine again. ...lost boat trying to find land via friends.
So lost I’d be happy with a foe if they could show me where to...
Moonshine be kind
I’m under the weather in the worst frame of mind.
The pages sometimes literally fall to pieces like leaves in midwinter. I have to be careful. Life in fragments. I’m studying the soft tissues of meaning when Mom says, “I have some shoeboxes of her old writings too.”
“Why haven’t you shown these to me before?” Mom shrugs.
I ask my mom if she’d read any of this stuff. She shakes her head. “I’ve glanced at it. Just could never throw it out. To me it was always just the musings of a young women trying to sort out her life.” But it’s so fragmented. I mean, we’ll never know what she really wanted to say, will we?
“But now that I’m thinking about it, these remnants remind me of a time years earlier, when your grandmother was diagnosed with a disorder that induced autoscopic hallucinations. I was young, probably in my teens when I found out. It was disorienting for her. Grandmother could see herself, like another person, standing outside of her body. She would sometimes be lying on the couch and see herself standing across the room like she was looking in a mirror.” Before she died, she told my mom that she must be just like Lincoln. My mom laughed thinking it was a joke.
She said that Grandmother told her it only happened at twilight on a full moon. She called it moonshine.
“Because the weird stuff only happened during full moon?” Mom nods. She crosses her arms and glances towards something that needs her attention. I guess it’s hard for her to talk about because of how her father always reacted to it.
My grandmother’s family, the Wentworths, were well established horse owners and horse trainers. Some of their horses placed in many races like the Derby and the Belmont Stakes. None ever won the Triple Crown. But one thing that made their ranch stand out from every other horse farm was that the Wentworths were convinced of their horses’ psychic abilities. And their ability to do math. The parapsychologist researcher, J. B. Rhine, investigated my great grandmother’s horse, Babe. He concluded that there was evidence for extrasensory perception between human and horse.
My mom secretly kept a small scrapbook of newspaper clippings about her grandmother’s peculiar success. There was one column in the Joplin Tribune called Filling Up Space, dedicated to the occult and all things parapsychology. One famous skeptical investigator, John Scarne, showed that Babe's prediction abilities resulted from Mrs. Wentworth’s employment of mind games that included signaling the answers to Babe. Though it deflated the wind in my great-grandmother’s sails, it must have showed her that the communication between animal and human was undeniable. Mom said she would look for the newspaper clippings at Grandad’s house. When my grandmother decided to get married and have children, her new husband shut that tomfoolery down in an instant.
Mom leaves me to study some of papers that are in the shoebox. Much of it unfortunately has garnered too much dust and is starting to crumble.
Fragments of thoughts. Little declarations: These are the things I must remember... That stanza would be something someone with early onset dementia might say, but this scrap of soft pink paper is at least fifty years old. What does she need to remember?
I skim over poems that rhyme and then don’t rhyme.
All hallowed hallucinations
hovers in the -------, brought out for special occasions...
I decide to look at one more little tuft of papers, discolored, faded. And glad I did. I guess we all have tiny keepsakes from periods of our lives where things happen but there is no proof. We write for memory and for agency.
Fallow in the darkest soil
Richest fruit in summer’s toil
I am the Seed of early spring
Plant me where I stand.
I will come back again.
Layla calls while I’m hanging out with Kate. I put her on speakerphone. “Hey, can you come get me? I’m stuck in Baltimore.” Kate suggests she take the train.
“No, I’m really stuck.” Long pause. “And I’m really scared.”
“What’s going on, Layla?”
“I’m in some guy’s apartment and he tied me up before he left.”
“Oh God.” Okay trying to think. “If you’re tied up, how are you calling me?”
“Okay, shit, can you send me your location?”
Kate chimes in. “Call the police, Layla!”
Layla is in tears. “I don’t know where I am.” Pulling herself together, “I think I’m at Riverside and Vine.”
“That doesn’t help me much, Layla.”
“Sorry. Okay, I see a drycleaner and a movie theater down the street from where I am. I’m not on the first floor, I don’t think.”
“I’m going to get in a car and drive to Baltimore right now. Maybe you should call the police.” Silence. “Just send me the address, somehow.”
Crying, “I will.” I go to stuff water and keys in a backpack.
“I’ll go with you.” Veronica says with certainty. She hands the baby to Kate. He smiles when he sails over to his aunt.
Layla sends the address and we’re gone. She doesn’t know which apartment she’s in.
An hour later we’re at 102 Riverside in Baltimore. Half parking and half on the curb, we jump out and realize shouting outside the old brownstone will not get us very far. We can’t even get into the building. It’s hot and there are gnats swimming in spirals, dizzy in the late afternoon sunshine around us.
Finally, an elderly woman with a small poodle comes out the door and I breezily say, “Hello, nice to see you.” She grunts with a nod and sets her dog on the ground. He pulls her along toward the sidewalk away from us.
Veronica and I go up the first flight of stairs. I think of Layla, and immediately I get the same fearful panic I felt before I walked in to find Veronica that day on the couch. The panic pulls me like a screaming clock, like the ticking will only amount to catastrophe. “No, I think she’s up another flight.” At the top of the second floor, I start yelling for Layla and I can hear her answer me at the end of the hall. Well, maybe a part of me does because Veronica hears nothing.
I pound on the door. Layla is really yelling now and shrieking. Veronica reaches around the top of the door and then looks under the mat and finds a key. We go in.
It’s very quiet inside at first. There is the hum of a refrigerator and the water pump on an aquarium with some fish. The front room is tidy, but then I see some of Layla’s clothing and grab each piece like an egg hunt as I walk to the couch, then the window then the hallway. I only find one shoe. She’s in the back bedroom and cries when she sees us. She’s tied up to the bedpost with black stockings. “My heroes,” she barks barely through her tears.
Her make up is black streaks pooled at her jaws and her nose is puffy. Other than that, she looks like she hasn’t been physically abused. “No, he didn’t beat me up.” She starts talking as we untie her, give her most of her clothes. “He is low-key so cute and really fun. He had some coke and the partying got wild. We went to two bars and then a private party...” She is shushed in wide-eyed fear as we hear the front door open. A guy comes in his house carrying a bag of groceries and is startled to see extra women on his bed. He smiles and we can tell he’s thinking, this could be fun. I’m about to say something when Veronica spits, “You sacred the shit out of our friend.”
His smile is gone. “What? We were just playing around...”
“Well, congratulations, asshole, you just had a front row seat on what NOT to do to a girl you just met.”
We go home. A few days later, Layla finds that she passed her exams for nursing school. But instead of the city, she decides to live with her parents for a while.
Veronica and Franklin come to live with Kate.
Patrick is way cool. He becomes a regular feature on Kate’s front porch.
Not so long after that, Layla, Veronica, Franklin, Kate and Patrick join me at the park near Kate’s house where the mature trees swaying in the light breeze are towering oaks and birch. Their leaves full and facing open to the rising moon.
Someone brings an anchor speaker, and we listen to Veronica’s playlist which includes “Lovelight,” “Moonlight Sonata,” “Blue Moon” and “Sisters of the Moon” by Fleetwood Mac.
We find a nice circle of trees in the small woody area behind the swings. Franklin, strapped to the snuggly on Kate’s chest for the majority of the evening, eventually gets handed back to his mom who gently lays him over her shoulder.
We wait and watch the moon rise along with its strange yellowish glow, ascending into an array of clouds that look like a chariot and horses carrying aloft the round swell of light. I am scared and yet ready. When the moon climbs above the trees enough to shine on our faces, I take off my cap and start crying. I can see the face in the moon. My friends hold my hands and touch my shoulders. I feel lifted, lighter and lighter. I can see everyone in their multiple selves, each one shimmering like that old-timey organza fabric made gold by the moon. I all at once am okay in my own skin.
Patrick pops open Prosecco for some and sparkling apple cider for others.
I dissolve into the effervescence of the light.