My father took me fishing once when I was eight or nine. Already, I didn’t know him, except as a rare visitor who drove me around on the motorcycle he kept at his parents’ house, whenever he passed through town between jobs.
We fished at Eagle Creek. I don’t remember if I had a pole or if my job was just to watch him catch something.
He jerked the first trout from the water and I saw him use a rough flick of his hand to pull out the hook. I put my hand to my mouth and pressed two fingers against the gum line of my top teeth. I focused on his hands, because his eyes were so unfamiliar.
He did not warn me before he slapped the fish hard against the rock between us. I flinched at the wet crack, and then I saw the fish go still. I knew nothing of fishing. I felt dizzy and afraid of him.
“It’s to put it out of its misery,” he said, flustered.
We began, by fifth grade, to establish a pecking order.
I was gullible—they convinced me once to shave my legs and arms. I dragged my mother’s pink razor from ankle to knee, then wrist to elbow. It was slow going, because each hairless furrow required careful examination.
That week of bristled forearms (and my hand-me-down flared jeans) kept me near the bottom of the ladder, looking up. But I wasn’t last, because of Mona.
Mona’s mother rode a bike. She was also poor and a grad student and a Buddhist. There was a wooden cabinet in her room with candles and beads and there was a pillow on the floor that we couldn’t use for anything. They didn’t have a couch or a television.
In the living room, Mona had an aquarium full of gerbils. Her mother didn’t know how to stop them from multiplying, because there was only one cage, and the babies would do it with their own mothers, Mona said. She pointed out the latest headless newborns, half-eaten by the father gerbils, and we pressed close to the glass to get a glimpse of their pink-red bodies just before her mother lifted them out, pinched between a piece of toilet paper like tiny dog turds. Her mother flushed them down the toilet.
It was hard to tell if Mona’s mom was mad about the gerbil babies. She gave us great big handfuls of dark grapes to eat in the park across the street and herded us out of the apartment. Her lips were pinched into a line. She said to go play. She said she had work to do.
My future landlady knows I am newly separated from my husband. She nods with an exaggerated sympathy when I tell her I need to move in soon. I am to understand that she, too, is without a husband—but she doesn’t say whether a deliberate or fateful act made her so.
She has deep creases in her cheeks and wears too much mascara. My new apartment is in the Casita de los Cornell. Her name is not Cornell.
She lets herself into my apartment from time to time, to leave me notes. She tells me the rent is a day late or that the electrician will be by, on blue or pink post-its. If I still lived with my husband, I might feel bolder. I might tell her she isn’t to come in when I am not at home. Instead, I think, there’s nothing to hide here.
One day there is a margarine tub on my table. There is a note on it that says, “I found this and thought of you and your bugs.” She means the dragonfly and green beetle I have under glass by my bed. Or she means the two cicada shells I keep in a jar by the living room window.
The margarine tub is opaque yellow with red writing. I have no way of knowing what is in it, and whether whatever-it-is is alive or dead. After a little while I look anyway. A giant black beetle rattles across the bottom of the tub. Something has crushed it, almost in half; there are guts and legs all over. I put the lid back on and leave the tub where I found it, for several weeks.
Long before my parents bought their house in Phoenix, a small turtle had wedged itself under the gray wooden floor of what my mother would call the “cabana” out by the kidney-shaped pool. She thought the cabana unsightly and unsafe. She asked Tom to tear the roof off and pull down the rickety supports and peel up the frame. When he did, the turtle was there, wedged tightly in the L of two 2 x 4s. It had been there awhile. It might have gotten stuck, or it might have crawled there to die.
It was just bones and dark, damp meat by the time he found it.
Tom said, “Figured you’d want it.”
I filled a bucket with bleach and dropped the whole thing in. I used a wooden spoon handle to break up the pieces. After a day, the shell began to peel, the color coming off in thin sheets like fingernails. I picked each bone from the pulpy water and laid it out by the pool to dry and whiten in the sun. Tom frowned at the bones from behind his newspaper.
I pressed my thumb against the point of its tiny beak and imagined how the skeleton would look on my bookshelf.
In less than an hour, a thunderstorm rushed over the house on its way to Mexico. The wind tore palm leaves off the trees and threw the remains of the cabana all over the yard. When it was over, I could only find the turtle shell and four leg bones in the bottom of the deep end.
In New Orleans the cicadas come up every year. That’s what the locals tell me at a crawfish boil one night. Their faces are stretched and contorted in the light of the fire. We dance to a brass band. We suck the heads and throw peeled tails into the darkness behind us.
Later, I slope and stagger over to the largest oak tree in the backyard. I place both hands upon it to stop the world from sliding out from under me. The deep furrows feel cool on my cheek. When I open my eyes, I see an empty cicada shell. The former inhabitant clings close by, still white and throbbing in its new world. I watch blood flow into its wings, fortifying them—the veins, thinner, even than hair. Its eyes first redden, and then go black.
As gently as I can, I unhook the clawed feet of the golden, hollow skin from the tree bark. There is a split down its back. It is a perfect landscape, every crease and fold of the nymph that was. I hang it on my lapel, the feet as secure as a pin, and return to the party.
My darling, if you were lying on the sidewalk, twisted up in agony, know that I would not lower down into a squat to watch you die. I would not wait for several minutes as you thrashed first fast then slow.
My dearest, I would not marvel at your change in color, or the rigidity that would take you.
But were you to die, I would place you under glass, too, if they’d let me. I would see the peace in your stillness (as you watched over me with dark eyes) not the loss.