KATHRYN LIPARI
 

‹‹ Please, an excerpt  

Cleave

          You don’t know how old you were when your father left. You don’t remember the weather. Old enough to hold trace memories from the day, young enough so that when you and your mother move soon after, there are a few years until you start kindergarten. You must have been three or four then. You could ask your mother, but you are ashamed not to know this fundamental fact, so you don’t.

          You do remember several moments: skipping around antsy and unmoored, waiting for something momentous; a friend of his you have never seen coming to help load his belongings and drive them away. You remember that before he moves out you are supposed to be taking a nap when you hear a tap on the front door. You have just learned how to twist the latch open, so you hop out of bed and run to it. You don’t remember the face there, but afterwards your father sits you down. She was just here to borrow something, we don’t have to tell mommy, you were supposed to be sleeping anyway, now let’s go back to bed. When your mother gets home you are so proud of opening the door all by yourself, that you forget your father’s warning and promptly tell her. She turns on your father and starts to scream at him.

           You retain a few memories from the days after he moved out: your mother crying, your mother crying so hard that she is almost howling. Was your mother in the shower when that happened? Did your mother fall down? Did she hurt herself? This is all mixed up with memories of the heartbreak of a little plastic animal you loved disappearing down the shower drain. There are still a few stuffed animals packed away at your mother’s house, which carry the soggy aura of that time with them.  

           But–you are told firmly and cheerfully by both your mother and your father–divorce is for the best. They can’t live together, but they are friends. This is obviously a lie, but you parrot it back on command, and feel obliged to believe it.

          There must be months, a year even, when you live in the house that your father lived in too, but now holds only you and your mother, and you must see your father, but if so, you lose it completely.

          You remember the sound of your own voice. “Mommy?”

           You leave the small house and move to your grandparents’ in a different city–greener and impaled with trees–Portland. Their house is still and spreads out around you. It will forever calm you to walk into that house, where time moves more quietly and gently. The clock ticks, ice cubes rattle, your grandmother sings. The afternoon air is warm and liquid and you swim tentatively through it.

          “No, she isn’t any trouble,” you overhear your grandmother saying to a friend. “She’s as quiet as a mouse, and funny. She talks to her dolls like they can hear her. And look, she just sits and looks at those books over and over, it’s as if she thinks she can read.”

          You listen, but your eyes don’t leave the pages. You think that you can read, at least a little: the plight of the girl in the story is becoming real to you as you force yourself to make sense of the long snarls of type.

          Your mother starts going to work. She’s a teacher now. She drives out to a high school in the suburbs and tries to teach the students how to speak French. “I don’t even know why they bother to offer it,” you overhear her tell your grandfather. “It could just as well be Swahili.” 

          You watch your grandfather listen to your mother and then reach into the back pocket of his tan pants and pull out his wallet. He opens it and then hands your mother some money. “Here you are freckles, buy yourself something pretty to wear.”

          “Oh daddy.” Your mother smiles as she hugs her father, but you can hear tears in her words.
               
         Your mother takes you to school on the way to work. She drives your grandparents’ extra car–big, drafty and gassy smelling. It makes her nervous and she tells you to be quiet as she grasps the stick shift and yanks it into place. Your mother has soft white hands; they smell like the creamy lotion she uses, but around her nails the cuticles are pink and bitten down.

         You giggle when she pretends the car can talk, growling at you in a rough voice,  “How would you like to live there?” when you pass houses that look friendly. “It’s not too big and not too small, just the size for you and your mommy,” and her voice changes into her real voice again. “We’ll find our own house soon, mon lapin. As soon as we figure out all this money stuff with your father.”


          You must be five or six when you do move again, and you know from hushed phone calls and conversations in rooms just beyond you–your mother’s muffled voice embroidered with anguish–that the money stuff has not all been figured out, and that your grandparents are somehow helping with the tremendous amount needed to obtain a house.    

          It’s a small wooden house in a tattered neighborhood; your feet make tapping noises on the floor, your fingers strum the struts of the banister. You have your own bedroom upstairs in the front. You stalk the rooms and claim your places: wedged above the heat register next to the warm porcelain bathtub, trailing the sunny spots on the floor in the dining room. You find niches where you take your books, plant yourself, and read.              Because, it has become real: you can read, you’re an early reader even, your mother says. She was not the one to discover this; your kindergarten teacher found you with a chapter bookhidden on your lap and lofted it up for the class to see.

           “Is this why your worksheets are never finished?” she asked, glancing around at the other students. “Is this why you never raise your hand? Too busy looking at the pictures? Please take your book to the principal’s office and show her.

         By the time you have been sitting in the office for minutes and minutes and minutes your heart is beating as hard as the rabbit your mother calls you after. But, when the principal sits before you and says in a voice you think is too kind to be real, “I know your teacher gives you circle time, that’s when you should be looking at pictures,” you surprise yourself by saying, “I wasn’t looking at the pictures, I was reading.”           She gives a little smile. “You were reading? This?”

           “Yes.”

           She hands you the book. “Why don’t you read some to me?”

           And it is like your chest has been opened to take the book from her, part it slowly to the first page, and begin to read the words.

           Your favorite hours are the early morning, when night still clings to your room, and you pad down the cold hall and climb up into your mother’s bed. Your mother cracks her eyes when you shimmy your legs into the warmth of her covers. They flash: green, brown, even orange. “It’s so early, lapin,” she murmurs, then closes them again. And then you get to watch her features become more distinct with the morning light: the sprinkle of freckles on her nose like a little constellation that you find patterns in. The very pale skin, stretched so fine over her bones, purple beneath her eyes. The hair that turns from pale to reddish as the light catches in it. She looks very young when she sleeps. She smells like no one else in the world, like some place you once knew better than anywhere else. You wait for her to wake, because when she does, it is the best part of your small life. She reaches out and strokes the hair back from your face. She smiles and brings her face close to yours. “I love you forever and ever,” she says. Sometimes she tickles you. You aren’t sure where you end and she starts.

           A noise wakes you earlier than usual one night, before there is even a hint of morning, and you walk to her room. You push the door open and stand by her bed. There is a bottle on the floor. The covers move and you hear your mother giggling and a man’s low laugh. You suppose it must be your father. “Daddy?” you ask.

           The movement stops, there is a tangle of voices, and then your mother sits up with the sheet pulled over her chest. “Rabbit,” she says in a voice that is not quite hers.
           “Something woke me up.”

           “Let’s go back to your room.” She climbs out of the bed with the sheet still held about her. 

           “I can’t go back to sleep alone.”          

           “I’ll stay with you a little.”

           She tucks you into your own bed and lies down beside you. She strokes your forehead; the tiny scrape of her fingernails lulls you. You wait for her to tell you about your father, but then you fall asleep and in the morning he is not there.