Clarence Harlan Orsi
And then she added, before I could get over the implications, “My rule is new girlfriends have to wait a month to meet him. If we’re still together then, fine.”
And then she added, before I could process this turn, “It’s just that he’s still getting used to me being a lesbian. Kids need consistency, you know?”
Maybe I did know, but it was all happening so fast. “We can just see where things go,” I said, so awfully reasonable, a reasonable dummy. But of course this was a lie, because I already knew I was in love with her and I wasn’t about to sit around and wait.As it turned out I met the son circa two weeks later, outside of the preapproved time frame. This was due to the job I had, which was in public relations for the Rhode Island State Landfill. There had been some bad press in the last couple of years and they needed someone to front questions. Things like water contamination, methane leaks, questions about organized crime involvement in the recycling program, some pointed letters to the editor. I certainly wasn’t qualified but there I was. The reality was that at that time it was very easy to get a job in Providence. It was the beginning of Mayor Buddy Cianci’s Renaissance that would later make the city famous for starting little fires along the river downtown every Saturday night, but when I graduated they didn’t have the fires yet and if you were a graduate of Brown University and a Caucasian at that you’d practically get paid just to stay in the city. Every morning Providence yawned and showed its dirty teeth, exhaled its morning breath, and you had the privilege of being there to experience it. The sky was always one color: the color of dishwater, yesterday’s newspaper, the tender under-wing of a plaza pigeon scouting for lunchtime crumbs.
Due to some kind of mandated environmental curriculum all the public school third grade classes in the state had to visit the landfill. Robert Corniglia, he with the last name of Jenny’s ex-husband, was one of those third graders. His class, like all the others, was there to ogle the landfill and then dig up the ground to bury their Memory Boxes. I’ll tell you about those soon, but consider first the setting. It was verdant, unexpectedly so. On the good side, which was the side we showed everyone, all you could see were stately hills formed by years of compacted trash, seeded over and left to sprout, now all plush and green and rolling. There were valleys of soil laid out in neat grids, spread with chopped waste and mixed with compost to form something greater than the sum of its parts, a mincemeat of lives lived elsewhere.
It’s a metaphor, ok? That it was so easy to forget, below that lush surface, all the trash buried underneath. Forgive me but it has some use here.
I had a shtick which I gave then, looking out all the while to see if I could recognize the kid. “What kind of animals do you think we have at the landfill?” And some milk-faced girl with a dumpling chin would always shout, as she did now: “BIRDS!” And I would say, as I did now, “That’s right! We have seagulls, herons, mallards, turkeys, ducks, and even swans. Would you ever think of a swan living at a landfill? If you’re good and look hard, you might even see a hawk.”
They’d said, in my training, to put a smile in my voice. I did this and the smile got stuck there and it hasn’t come out since.
We made our way to a steaming compost pile. Mist unfurled from its dark heart. I beckoned the class close. “There’s a dragon…” I pitched my voice low, heavy with import. “It lives in there.” I pointed to the fire-breathing earth. All chattering hushed. A few kids whimpered softly. This was probably my favorite part of the tour.
“Just kidding!” I grinned. “It’s compost! Compost is special dirt where food scraps decompose. The scraps get packed down so much they heat up and make steam.”
That’s when I saw him, the same face as his mother, like an exotic fruit newly stocked at the grocery store that startles you before you realize it’s beautiful. To be more concrete, he had long dark bangs swept to the left just like his mother. However, he didn’t have the lanolin sheen to his hair that she had, or her tits for that matter, so don’t get any ideas.
I could tell he was the only kid who hadn’t bought my dragon story. It wasn’t that he was skeptical, just distracted, like he had more important things on his plate. I resented him for this. I wanted to talk to him right away but I had to wait to set everyone up to dig a hole for their Memory Boxes. Now I’ll tell you that the Memory Boxes Project was how we were making use of land that, due to the threat of groundwater contamination, could never be used for anything else. The kids brought non-corrodible recycled plastic boxes into which they were supposed to have placed a small number of items, items by which they wanted people to remember their lives, their generation, their century. After we had all died someone else would dig them up, I don’t know, we hadn’t thought that far.
Robert was digging and had his head down so that his bangs hovered away from his face.
“I’m friends with your mother,” I told him.
He looked up and his bangs flounced back into place. “Girlfriend-friend?”
“That’s right.” This kid was savvy for sure. I tried to see in his box, but they’d made them with the sides opaque. “What did you put in your Memory Box?”
“Personal stuff,” he said, and then like a nincompoop I found myself apologizing. What did an eight year old have that could possibly be personal? I was glad when I could give the lot of them over to their teacher, who had the quiet desperation of a woman at the beginning of a very long year. I took a moment to breathe in the silence, the muted hum of bulldozers after the class had throttled back down the hill to the bus.
“It’s not fair!” a girl yelled from the parking lot. “We didn’t even see a hawk!”Shortly after I met her son Jenny started to notice that certain things of hers had disappeared. First it was a comb, then it was a grocery list, then it was a tiny plastic baggie filled with the ashes of the family guinea pig, then it was an Ani DiFranco cassette. Who knows how she put two and two together, but she thought to ask Robert if he had put them in the Memory Box and he said he had. She went through all of those items individually and each of them had gone in. When she asked what else he had put in there, he wouldn’t say. He was operating under a Yes/No regime, no elaborations.
“I think the divorce is getting to him,” she said one night. It was late September and untraditionally hot and we were stripped to underthings in her room, running the AC for twenty minutes until it spluttered out, the fickle beast, then hoisting the rain-rotted window frame up onto the endless vinyl-sided vista that was her neighborhood.
Now I didn’t want to criticize, but the fact was that the next room over was Robert’s and the next over from that belonged to Bryce, Jenny’s ex-husband. “Now I don’t want to criticize,” I said, “but don’t you think the kid needs some more boundaries in his life? You’re telling him his parents are divorced, but you still live together.”
She reached a languid arm toward mine. “You’re just shy about making love with them there.”
“Well that’s one thing,” I said.
“Loosen up, Liberal Arts,” she said. Jenny had studied English herself, at Rhode Island College, but she’d dropped out after her first year to have Robert. Still, she had a much better handle on the Romantics than I.
She put my hand on the fastener of her cream-colored bra, and boy was I tempted, but then I thought of the photo of her and Bryce and the kid still sitting on the mantle of the plastered-over fireplace and I couldn’t do it.
Jenny got up to get us a joint, on the theory that this would loosen me up. She searched her underwear drawer, claiming she had one already rolled. No dice. “I could have sworn—” she started, and then she remembered. “God damn that kid to hell.” She didn’t bother to put on any more clothes before leaving the room to confront him. I could hear her asking Robert whether he’d put the joint in the Memory Box. Then I heard her say, “If you don’t tell me everything else that’s in there I’m going to slap you.”
I pulled on one of Jenny’s t-shirts and went into the kitchen to prevent corporal punishment. Bryce was in there too, practicing his spice tolerance on a plate of penne arrabiata. This was actually what he did in his spare time, when he wasn’t fundraising for WRNI. He’d started with a simple salsa and moved onto jerk chicken, then calamari with sriracha sauce, now this. The idea was to be able to down a plate without wincing or tearing up. It had something to do with his manhood, probably, which had been harmed in the divorce, and by his wife’s becoming a lesbian. There were bulges under his T-shirt from his weight-lifting, but he couldn’t hide his scrawny shoulder bones, the same ones his son had. He held out a forkful of pasta for Robert to take, and Jenny told him that was tantamount to abuse, and took Robert with her to the bathroom so that they could brush their teeth.
Now that we were alone, Bryce offered me the pasta; I said no thanks. “You know how this all started,” he said. A breeze from the window blew two of the half-used tissues clustered around Bryce’s plate to the floor. “Your girlfriend can’t cry.”
“That’s right. Not a single tear from that ice witch face, never ever. Think about it. Have you ever seen her cry?”
I thought about it. “I’ve only known her for a month.”
“Well, she can’t. We thought spicy food might give her some release. It didn’t work, like everything else. Now it’s just my thing.”
“Can she really not cry?”
“Just listen: I read Old Yeller to her. I applied thirty bandaids and ripped them off in quick succession. We watched The Land Before Time, the scene where Littlefoot’s mom dies, over and over again while slicing onions. I covered Robert in ketchup and pretended he’d been assaulted on the street.”
“None of it worked?”
“None of it. Now I’m stuck with this spicy food, because I have an obsessive personality and can’t let go of things. But that’s nothing compared to what you’ve gotten into with this one.”
He was referring to Jenny, who had just walked into the room. “I heard all that,” she said. She licked her forefinger and wiped some arrabiata sauce off of Bryce’s cheek in a way that absolutely slaughtered me inside, it was so thoughtlessly tender. That finger wipe contained the whole history of their relationship, and I feared for the first time but not the last time that the two of them weren’t over yet.
“Don’t listen to him,” Jenny told me, but it came out more like an inside joke she had with Bryce than a way of comforting me.
“I’ve seen her cry,” Robert said, startling us because we had all forgotten he was there.
“Elaborate, kid,” Bryce said.
Robert turned to his mother. “We were at the Children’s Museum. You asked me whether I liked your new dress and I said I thought it was ugly. When you started crying I took the camera from around your neck and got a picture because I knew no one would believe me.”
“Genius, this kid,” said his father.
“I have no memory of that,” Jenny said. “And why did you say my dress was ugly?”
He shrugged. On his pajamas, trains scooted under rainbows. “I didn’t like it.”
“Let me see the picture,” she said, and when Robert was silent she put her head in her hands. “You’ve got to be kidding me.”
“It’s in the Memory Box,” I said to Bryce, glad to be able to clarify something he didn’t know.
So that ended that episode, but the specter of Jenny’s possibly having cried stayed with all of us, especially Jenny herself, who I could tell was thinking about it, even while she was engaged in other activities: skipping slate shards on a grey unswimmable day off Jamestown beach, at the grocery store capitulating to her son’s demands for a stick of frozen Red #5, at her 8:30-5:00 at the front desk of Blue Cross Blue Shield Rhode Island, the job she said was just like pulling teeth from your anus.But how to give you the flavor of our love? I think I will invoke one of those ices that tasted like sugared rain that they sold in Armory Park, across the street from my West End studio next to the taco stands and Dominicans playing pick-up soccer. You kids today think you’re the first to gentrify a neighborhood. I was the one that pioneered that signature dance move, the one where you avoid the eyes of the people whose rents you’re raising. It had been just been a few months since I’d graduated college, but it was hard to believe I’d ever been there at all. Somewhere not too far east, up College Hill, lay those curlicued wrought iron gates and stone balustrades. That had been my world, which was now Jenny, and the landfill, and some Latin Pride festival always going on in the Park, pounding merengue and girls with chests straining out of flamenco dresses and old men on their fifth Corona of the afternoon.
So I was the first to gentrify my neighborhood and the first in the history of time to fall in love. I’d had my share of girlfriends as the whole college ripened into lesbianhood for a year or so, but it hadn’t been like this. And if you asked me to explain myself, I wouldn’t be able to tell you. Love isn’t rational, etc.
Jenny herself once said: “Why do you like me so much, Liberal Arts? Is it because I’m a member of the proletariat?”
And I said, “I’ve moved so far beyond like, baby, there’s no map that can chart my position.”
“I’m losing track of your position now,” said Jenny, because I had my hand deep inside her, always the joyous spelunker of my love.
I laid a gentle middle finger on something warmly pulsating and she gasped in gratifying response. “You’re my little puppet,” I whispered. With what seemed a heroic effort she wrested herself from the moment, spluttered in surfacing and sat up, taking my hand with her.
“Puppet?” she said, breathing hard.
Ever so gently, I retracted the hand. “Did I offend you?”
She wrapped herself in a ball, so that her knees were two moons under her eyes. “You know, I could have had a life like yours.”
“There’s nothing to envy about it,” I said, wondering whether I could wipe my hand on the bedspread.
“You have your whole life ahead of you.” She dropped her head between her knees so that I couldn’t see her eyes. “I just have a weird kid.”
“You’re exaggerating,” I said. But she looked so morose, and I was so frightened of her sadness, that I was moved to offer to take the kid off her hands the next day, which was Saturday. To give her the day off.
“One whole day off,” she said sarcastically. But then she caught herself and said she was grateful, and stroked my cheek with the crook of her knuckle, and told me to go wash off my hand.
I took him to the carousel at Roger Williams Park. Isn’t that what you’re supposed to do, with kids? By this time it was chilly and damp and wet leaves stuck to the hindquarters of the animals. No one in their right mind was out there so the sallow-faced teenager who ran the thing let us have unlimited rides.
Robert chose one of the taller steeds, with flanks the color of Windex and paint flecking off its eyes. If Cianci needed to gentrify anything in Providence it was this horse. But the kid didn’t care; he was chatty with me, let it be noted, no longer wary of his mother’s new girlfriend. Four months earlier I was sitting in a seminar on Continental theory and now here I was, good with kids.
“In school we learned about the Incorruptibles,” Robert said. “They’re saints that when they die, they don’t rot in the ground. We could go look at them now and they’d be just like a normal person. That’s how you know they’re really holy.”
“Aren’t you going to a public school?” I asked him.
“It was Share Your Religion Day.”
“Do you think your mother still loves your father?”
“Sure,” he said, but, goddammit, I don’t think he understood what I meant. Then he said, “Look what I can do,” and crouched to stand on the back of the horse.
“Jesus, be careful,” I said, looking to the sullen teenager in charge of our ride. But he was absorbed in a mystery novel, unencumbered by the eyes of the world. Of course in a moment Robert swayed and slipped, landing face down against the corrugated aluminum. Three seconds later he was wailing loud enough for Sullen Boy to pull the emergency brake. Ten minutes later we were in the Hasbro Children’s Emergency Room, a paper towel around Robert’s bloody lip. He’d lost a tooth, only one of his baby teeth thank God. I’d retrieved it from the carousel floor, a bloody enamel lump. Now he was whimpering a little, leaning his big boy-head against my jacket in a way that frankly broke my heart. He needed me, this was clear. I tried to think if I knew any lullabies, but the only lyrics I could remember were to “Rebel Girl,” off Bikini Kill’s new album. Which I sang softly to him then, sitting on those cold plastic chairs, anything to avoid what I’d have to tell Jenny.
“Rebel girl rebel girl/Rebel girl you are the queen of my world/Rebel girl rebel girl/I think I want to take you home/I want to try on your clothes.”
They gave him two stitches and sent him on his way. No big deal. But I, of course, had failed. I bought him soft serve to put off our return, I considered running away with him to South America, but in the end I took him back to his parents’ place and pleaded for their forgiveness.
“Jesus, Carrie,” Bryce said when we walked in. “We give you the kid for one day.”
He was sitting in front of a Bhut Jolokia pepper, which at that time was the hottest in the world. I recognize that there have been advances in the field since then but this is my story, and in my day that pepper was fearsome. Bryce had it Fed-Exed from India, a special variety. The Indian military was experimenting with putting it in hand grenades. He sat under a light dimmed from bug carcasses and stared the thing down.
“Jenny, come out here and see this,” he said.
I held my breath. My love emerged, took her son into her arms.
“It’s ok,” she told me after a few minutes of cooing at him. “You didn’t mean it.”
But despite her generosity, which I’ve never been able to equal in my own debased life, the incident cast a pall between us. We didn’t talk for a week. More accurately, I left her voicemails, and she, agonizingly, didn’t respond. I left them into the void of that curry-smelling kitchen.
“Jenny, it’s Liberal Arts. Call me back—give me a reason to live. Speaking of which, Bryce, I hope the pepper hasn’t killed you. Someone call me back.”
Work should have been busy enough that week to distract me. An ambitious Providence Journal reporter fearing the imminent axing of her job had dredged up evidence that in the ‘90s we’d contracted with Bryan Hospital to dispose of toxic medical waste. It was legal at the time, but apparently since newly passed hazardous chemical laws we were supposed to dispose differently or just disclose? Unclear—and like everything else the situation was above my pay grade. Still I wrote the first drafts of a couple press releases, took public ire at a few community meetings.
To shuck it off I took up jogging for exactly two days. On the second I circled Armory Park, where a few of my fellow white people walked golden retrievers while the Dominicans played soccer. My chest was wound tight as a mandolin but I was beginning to feel free. I knew that eventually Jenny would forgive me, and that at that point I could begin my campaign to get her to move out of her apartment and into the rest of my life. We would have a small ceremony that linked us forever in a backyard that, right now, neither of us had. It didn’t even bother me that it wouldn’t be legal—I didn’t need that patriarchal BS.
And then I realized that I was running in the middle of a soccer game, during what appeared to be a tense moment, right across the goal. Men yelled at me in Spanish, and I panicked. I tried to move out of the way but instead I bumped into someone’s hip and kicked someone else’s ankle. I was encouraged, this time in English, to go fuck myself. I made frantic motions of apology, but no one was interested.
I was at home on the sofa, gently palpating my wounded pride, when Jenny finally called. She said she was sorry she hadn’t been in touch, but given the circumstances I could understand, right? I could, of course I could, I was so happy to have her back. But there was a problem: she couldn’t stop thinking about that photo in the Memory Box. She needed to see it for herself, to confirm that at one point she’d actually cried. It had hit her when Robert came in with his stitches, his puffy lip, and still she hadn’t been moved. Was she some kind of monster? She needed the photo to tell her otherwise.
“We have to go back to the landfill,” she said. “Can you get us in tonight?”
The idea was to get there while no one else was around. I’m not sure there were any laws against it, but digging up a Memory Box wasn’t something we wanted to advertise. So there we were, at four the next morning, worming our way along I-95 into the fabric of the starless night. Jenny had picked me up with a thermos of coffee and a loaf of Portuguese sweetbread from her neighborhood bakery. I pressed my lips to hers in greeting, remembering our first kiss in that same car nearly six months ago, and I felt that all was right with the world. Robert sat in the backseat, tired and grouchy but with the stitches already removed from his lip.
“Bryce finally ate the Bhut Jolokia. He had to go to the emergency room. What an idiot.” She said it almost affectionately; I wondered, yet again, how she could ever have married him.
The air that morning was chilled taut, like a leather jacket not yet worn-in, like a finger-snap. We parked next to a row of compactors and climbed the hill holding shovels Jenny had brought. Everything that was green during the day was black now. The air smelled only faintly of trash; I liked to play a game where I closed my eyes and pretended I was smelling parmesan cheese. When we got to the top of the hill I knew we were screwed, that I hadn’t thought this through well enough. The divisions where one class’s burial ground ended and another’s began weren’t marked, never mind the locations of individual boxes. I asked Robert what he remembered.
“If it was an Incorruptible you could find it by the smell of flowers,” he said. “Those saints smelled like roses instead of dead people.”
“What the hell is he talking about?” Jenny said, and I prepared myself for a long time digging.
I spiked the shovel into the ground and drove it home with my foot, wrenching the shallow grass roots and wood-flecked soil up and out. I did this over and over again, each time hitting the plastic anti-contaminant layer and shifting to try another spot. After about twenty minutes of this we found the boxes from his class: “KIERAN ISAACS” and “EMMANUEL RAMIREZ” printed in block letters on their sides. Jenny let out a whoop. Dawn was getting ready to crest, nothing unpredictable there, and we needed to move fast or the equipment operators would find us out.
We found Robert’s box by the time the sun was reaching tendrils into the sky like someone pushed off a cliff, hands grasping on the way down. Jenny opened the latch and spilled everything out onto the ground, those things she’d known were missing and some she hadn’t: the pom-pom from a hat, a math worksheet, a greasy fork. Jenny only cared about the photo. She picked it up and looked at it a while, and I leaned in too. From a distance you wouldn’t have been able to tell she was crying, but if you looked close you could see the crinkle around her eyes.
Robert and I watched, waiting for her reaction. There was a faint sleepy hum to the air like seagulls snoring. A skunk skittered by, a brief band of white. It took me a long time to realize Jenny was crying again, right there in front of us, a few lonely tears. Robert and I high-fived. I felt bad and hugged Jenny and she cried some more.
“He’s right,” she said through her tears. “It’s a really ugly dress.”
“Let it out,” I said.
She whispered something, so soft I couldn’t hear, and I asked her to repeat it.
“Bryce and I slept together this past week.” She said it in the same tone, so that Robert couldn’t hear. “That’s why I didn’t call. I couldn’t face you.”
I drew away and looked at her to make sure she wasn’t kidding. She wasn’t. Now my own face crumpled, betraying me. “What’s the matter?” Robert said. I wanted to ask her for details but the damn kid was there. It was like she’d designed it that way. I kicked the Memory Box so it rolled down the hill, and then Robert started crying too, and now we were all crying and I knew I was a failure.
“I guess I’m not done with him yet,” Jenny said, still softly.
“I guess not,” I said.
Five minutes later we were still there sniffling. “You’ll do fine, Liberal Arts,” Jenny said.
I lay down and stretched my back to the earth, face to the implacable sky, trying to think something thrummingly resonant, such as that nothing is permanent, etc., but my hot stupid brain was filled with the specter of Jenny’s flesh, the simple joy of it I’d never have again. I crawled my fingers out to the side to feel for what I could grab of her without moving. I was in too much pain to move. She scooted her thigh closer to let me have at least that, a final benediction.
That’s when I saw the bird I’d always told the kids on the tours to look out for but never actually believed we’d see: a hawk, silhouetted against the dark. I watched it caroming oceanward, borne up by the still air, then stared for a long time at the place it had been, the only shape now night against night.
“What?” Jenny said, knowing I was thinking something, and it gave me some small mean pleasure to know that there was something I knew the significance of that she would never. But how could that sustain me, in the end? We stayed until our fingernails were chilled blue, the compacting machines had begun their morning rumble and Robert whined he’d be late to school, and then we drove back to Providence.
Clarence Harlan Orsi is a recent graduate of the PhD program in writing at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln whose essays and fiction have appeared in The Believer, Better: Culture and Lit, Chicago Review, Chicago Quarterly Review, Cincinnati Review, Confrontation, Cream City Review, Joyland, Mayday, n+1, The New Inquiry, Passages North and The Pinch.