One day, a week before your twenty-third birthday, which as it happens is also the first week of spring, you step out of the hotel to take a walk, but as soon as you’re outside all you want is to not be outside. Your skin retracts in unaccountably violent shivers and something starts writhing right next to your heart. You hurry back to your room, lock yourself in where it’s safe, and draw the torn pink shade over your single window, telling yourself the small amount of rosy light that still struggles in must be soothing, good for your bad mood. Besides, you realize that there’s very little comfort to take from the steady ugliness of the room—ochre walls tracked with roll-on floral trellises in bloody scarlet paint, stained lampshade and bedspread, greenish ceramic sink, ancient oven with the controls pried out since (you’ve decided) the management knows how many bodies they’d have on their hands if residents could actually turn on the gas—and you just figure the less light shining on these features, the better. On the first day of self-confinement you are drowsy, your strange panic having left you only enough energy to tangle with your sheets. On the second day, you’re antsy, you shake and pace, and every time you sit down you’re unhappy with where you’re sitting, so you stand and move your one chair and sit down again and again until eventually you rearrange all of the hotel furniture; at midnight you force yourself to lie down on your bed, but not being used to its new position next to the closet makes you feel like you’re horizontally standing on your head, and you consider making yourself come to get tired but you fall asleep before that’s necessary.
On the third day, you begin to shed your skin.
The shedding takes about three more days and is not painful. You are aware of nothing during this time except the way your muscles work to do it, work almost in spite of you. Eventually your skin gets loose enough to kick out of, like a pair of leather jeans. Finished, you’ve left a whole layer of yourself behind, in one piece. You stand, stretch, and examine your old skin, which has the look of translucent vellum, though it’s damp to the touch. You lift the skin by the shoulders and give it a good shake to get the creases out, then lay it out gently on a clean hotel towel, in the corner by the radiator. You’ve done this before with wet delicate sweaters, and find the procedure appropriate.
Shedding exhausts you so once again you slide into bed. Hours and hours cycle outside; squares of pink windowshade-filtered daytime enter and slide along the walls for a while and then graciously let the shadows and darkness replace them. You’ve thought ahead and pulled your wool blanket up over your eyebrows, so neither the light nor the night interrupt your sleep. You do wake for a moment at dawn on your birthday; you raise the shade and notice, just as you should have known, the dull new spring sun looks exactly the same through eyes a year older. Then you decide that this is another most convenient day to sleep away.
So when you get up that night, after midnight, you think: you are now inescapably twenty-three. And then you are suddenly awash with the only impression you’ve kept from the whole shedding process as your body recalls the shiver and shrug and push, the final tense contraction you forced to complete the release of your old skin from somewhere around your thighs. Rising to stand naked in the middle of the dark room, not bothering to turn on a light but thinking that for once it’d be helpful to have a full-length mirror around, you smooth your hands in examination over yourself. You learn that the new skin is identical to your memory of the old—all your scars have been left intact—and then remember that you should check the old to see if it’s dry, or isn’t dry and because of that has started to smell of mildew. But it’s not where you left it. Not exactly.
Instead you find it filled out and leaning propped on an elbow next to the radiator, glowing in a wash of moonlight, grown into a skin doll that at first glance looks a lot like you. You inch closer, calm and slow, hoping it won’t startle like a frightened kitten and disappear into a dark corner or under the bed before you get a chance to really check it out. As you draw near, you see that the thing could practically pass as your twin. It’s maybe even a bit prettier than you in some vague way, the tilt of its eyes maybe sweeter, no frown lines drawn across its forehead or creased in parenthesis around its mouth. This seems to you both hilarious and hugely unfair.
You stop tip-toeing. You’re standing right before her. You reach down and find her hand in order to help her up off the carpet.
The doll soon becomes your friend. She’s a treasure. She’s easy to take.
illustrations by Jane Lee
The baby hadn’t come yet but I had been pregnant for the full time necessary. In our apartment we had my grandmother’s sectional couch from the 1970s, the jacquard a cream field layered with deep aqua fleur de lis, the profile low… so low that the last bit of sitting down was more like a fall than a sit. The couch was not legged but wheeled, so its underside was only a few inches from the pergo floor. I was lying on the ground along and parallel to the back of the couch, on my side so that I was facing the space underneath, and I watched the couch give birth to the baby. There was no struggle. Head crowned, shoulders smoothly appeared next, the baby dangling there upside-down in the space, the sun shining on the floor from behind.
I was my age but moving into a dorm-like apartment with at least three other people, all boys, all people I didn’t know. Wherever I was, I was meant to be a teacher there. I get to one of the bedrooms after wandering for some reason I don’t remember through the rest of the space (it was ill-defined, the kitchen not a kitchen or next to anything it should be next to, and then in a different spot when I got to it again) and find that they’ve already chosen who I will share the room with and he has already unpacked and set up a full wall of bookshelves to hold all his disorganized and ugly stuff. They have also already unpacked my books and put them on the shelf in an order that I would not have chosen if I had been allowed to do it myself. I turn to confront them and they have all gone translucent, impossible to face or to blame.
Work is in a big mirrored building with mauve hallways and I am supposed to be there already and I can’t remember what I’m supposed to get done today. The office where we all work is an open room closely contained by a low acoustic tile ceiling. There is a central clearing in the field of beige low cubicle walls. Everything is office-colored, seen through the flourescent scrim with which we are all so familiar. I spend some time being blurrily ineffective in front of a computer.
The air changes, or something changes, I don’t know. The room feels different but not in a surprising way. I look around for my officemates to gauge the expressions on the faces of those who can see the door behind me, realizing as I do so that this workplace has been only abstractly populated since I started in for the day. I know a mass shooter has entered our office. I know I will be the only hostage. But I don’t know, as I am now already sitting tied to a chair in the dead center of the clearing, how I travel the distance between someone working to human sacrifice. I am just already there. He is behind me. He has brought two guns, one for each of his hands. He holds the guns to the back of my head, each pointing in. When he shoots me the bullets will clear paths that cross at the center and exit each at the opposite temple. When he shoots me he will draw an empty X through my brain.
She remembers, in detail, each of the long trips there, the air in the car thick with her father’s cigar smoke, and with her dread. She’d be belted into the center of the back seat, trapped for hours with her frustrated parents in the unforgiving Southern California traffic. Every year she’d stare out the car window, already wishing they were back home, and she’d decide that it must always be August in Orange County. That it didn’t change even for the eleven months she was gone. It was hot, arid, the roadside orchards bleached and tanned to a parchment crackle; legions of muddied workers stooped in the desert stretch of beige fields. White bones of new stucco strip-malls lay caught against the air behind them. The familiar mountains they’d just descended from were obscured by haze, smog; green freeway signs were grayed with the stain of it; the wind was all absorbed by it, wind that just sounded like a wheeze. She remembers exactly the way those trips smelled—of cigar, the scent of tar and tires, of asphalt baking, and coconut sun oil.
The mostly-new Newport beachfront homes bordered planned neighborhoods in large alternate blocks of cream, beige, pale tan. There was no escaping the sight of them, full ranks of them, from the freeway. Each year during the drive there’d be more and more of them sprouting from empty lots, but just looking, while passing, she knew the way they’d decay. Matte sandblasted paint would chip from stucco or cleverly textured plaster, and fall like used-up leaves would elsewhere. Four sunlit seasons a year would fade the three shades of white to one.
Her father would drive the car past clean winding sidewalks, young yellowish trees held up by stakes along them, no-one out along them. It was too hot in the daytimes for more than a few people wearing bathing suits or faded denim shorts, shirts cottony, detergent-pale, white. Days really belonged to the bugs. Even from the car seat, she could watch the lengths of ants writhing over concrete curbs. They’d lived in the orange fields and been displaced by all the recent development. Ants trailing, surrounding, dismantling the dead: discarded wrappers from ice-creams, flattened shells of roaches, of greasy snails.
Mick at Taqueria el Atacor #11, late dinner Tuesday April 15
Plate of three papas tacos with lettuce, crema, and guacamole
Are you at the place right now, I don’t see you? Oh wait this is the wrong one, be there in a second. There are a million ways for people to be something different than a photo when you're confronted with the physical fact of them standing in front of you. I bike. I run. I’m on break right now and trying to meet people ouside my two small circles. So this is a dealbreaker for some people and I just need to tell you that I worked in porn for a long time though I don’t anymore. You know Suicide Girls? The parties were great, then I lost my house and everything too. So shall we do this again?
Duke at Proof, lunch Tuesday April 22
Ham, cresenza, pickled red cabbage on baguette
Well I think it’s always a good idea to do something easy first, just a coffee or something. No I can’t read the board so that doesn’t help me choose which sandwich can you just tell me which is which? Fucking politicians. I think we could totally hang out again. Ooh yes give me another that was nice.
Thomas at Golden Road, dinner after rollerskating Sunday April 27
One Heal the Bay IPA, half of a 2020 IPA; one Jackfruit taco with corn salsa, napa cabbage, and chipotle cream; a bite of pulled pork sandwich braised in GRB Hefe and wildflower honey, with shredded cabbage and honey mustard on an onion roll
Now I’m imagining us skating around and around and laughing and flinging each other about holding hands. You don’t have to reply I’ll meet you at the rental counter at 7:30. My youngest girl is in therapy because she thinks it’s my fault that her mother and I aren’t together but it’s not my place to tell her about the drugs and the carrying on with my best friend. I’m writing her a long letter about how that all went down and her mother is too and hopefully her mother will be honest. I have such a beautiful family. What are you asking me, I can’t promise anything, I do have an ongoing relationship with him it’s mostly just sexual now and that has to be OK. I guess my interactions with people even the first time we meet tend to be intense, and I should be able to separate myself or back off or not attend as closely so maybe all this would be easier. Bodies are hot when they’re not like the typical body. I’m a little confused by my feelings about what happened last night. You were there but not present, so I wasn’t interested in continuing. I think you were just really tired.
illustrations by Jane Lee
A number of my grandmother’s things shredded within just a year or two of my having brought them home. Maybe it wasn’t me. Maybe they were, when I inherited them, just on the very edge of giving up the ghost; they had looked well and intact but I hadn’t lived with them up until then so I can’t know for sure. The sectional couch, the light floral pillowcases that are now so worn they’re transparent, her lacy hand-knitted wrap made of black acrylic yarn I shouldn’t have washed. The romping kitten dishtowels, only “glass” and “silver” left of the set my aunt embroidered as a child.
Well. In fact I don’t know the towels’ provenance for sure, but it looks like a child made them—and it wouldn’t have been the boy child—half-mindedly, ignoring instructions (maybe with a tad of impotent rebellion) stitching on whatever line until the pre-cut piece of colored floss ran out. On the one still left in my kitchen-towel drawer, green traces the cat’s rump and tail and down its front leg. Then its paw goes pink, and that color continues along the rim of a goblet, though a more practiced or present handworker would have tied off at the start of the glass and re-threaded her needle with blue.
Surrogate for the Strand I Lost
These are not the coral beads I was given when I was ten by my father’s cousin David, one of Eva and Ed’s two sons, a trader in gems and a yogi who claimed the ability to levitate.
Mignon’s parents in formal clothes, a portrait (I like to imagine) made to use on theater posters. These are stunning people, beautiful people. Their first child will look nothing like her mother.
Mignon as a three- or four-year-old in a sepia studio shot, head tilted completely sideways against her hands flat on the table, her eyes, the “Greene greens,” shining. I’m the last of these eyes, since my daughter didn’t get them from me.
Mignon about ten, costumed and made up for the stage, a bow the size of angel wings somehow attached to the back of her head.
Impossibly slender-waisted in a black floral dress on the white stoop of a suburban house somewhere, the only one (in a gathering of eight family types, whoever they are) really posing for the camera.
A bathing beauty in a black 30s suit. “You look exactly like her,” they say when we get to this picture in the stack. I am 15 and can’t even imagine it, though I do wish it were so. As an adult I know there’s a starlets’ trick in the way she’s standing, one foot in front of the other to minimize hips and thighs, but still and all that is not the body I was handed down.
And the one that makes me want to cry. She is sitting, she is resting her forehead against a curled hand, she is looking at something nobody else could see.
There’s another, from the next moment maybe, where she’s leaning sideways and back so far in her chair that there’s a shadow from her shoulder across her jaw and it looks like it must be a joke. But her expression is set, serious.
On the lawn in front of the Griffith Observatory, posing with her male child, next to a man she knows—not her husband—posing with his male child.
Drawn-on eyebrows, a black coat with big shoulders, a broad face squinting or unhappy in the winter light.
And then it seems that a photographic record of some number of intervening years was not made.
Now in her 60s, hair light red, the contrast with the dark curls of her youth more striking because this is the first in the stack made with color film. An Olan-Mills-style watercolor backdrop. Her face framed and shoulders hidden by the long floaty wisps of a salt-and-pepper feather boa.
Inside Mignon's house, probably 1973, busy and cluttered with people visiting, stuff on all surfaces, framed pictures butting up against each other on a wall. The bookshelves I have now and the back of the couch I had but killed by using make a narrow lane of carpet in which two-year-old, curlyheaded me is sitting. My grandmother is in the photo too, in matchy blouse, waist-nipping braided leather belt, a floor-length fitted navy skirt that looks like it might restrict her stride because she has a hand on the back of the couch to balance herself. She is looking away as she steps over me.
illustrations by Jane Lee