The Dog Snarls
by LEE MONTESCU
Elaine is born in October, too small and baby-like to ever be an Elaine, a woman’s name. She is pretty in a perfunctory baby sort of way, her mother works during the nights, and her father works during the days. Her mother is from the south, her father was there in the military. She spends her time in Memphis, and though the city is friendly to her she is only a child, and feels none of it. Something changes then, and her father, a doctor in his own right, starts making dollars. And Los Angeles tempts their noses and the way monied cities and the whole way of life that comes with it do.
When she is seven, living in a room that used to be a closet in San Jose, she is dreaming about fish, dreaming about mammals giving birth. For solace, down the hall, she wanders in on her parents having sex. Her father has bent her mother over. Her mother is looking back. Her father turned the face of the mother away, and she enjoyed being pushed back, teasing. And unfortunately, such things are implanted on the brain, irascible sunspots, elephants broken up into microscopic culture, that one could struggle mightily against, and fail.
She speaks her first word. It is “papaya.” She has been watching Galavision, which is the Spanish channel you get because she is so near Mexico, another country. I know because I lived in Mexico at that age, and my life has never been harder. Owing money because you’re spending too much of it has never been a cause of celebration.
She is talking in complete sentences at only three years old. You take her to doctor, a professional, aged, learned scholar who tells her that her child is the rarest of breeds. She is a prodigy, but they discovered why it was such a tough birth. The baby is a diabetic. Her father says, “Anton Chekhov, also a doctor, liked frail, sick women, often portraying them in work.” He makes references to “Uncle Vanya,” but those plays have long faded out of our cultural literacy, and now his legend is entrusted to me, who begins paragraphs with vapid details like “the woman is walking a dog behind them. The dog snarls.” But this isn’t anything like that.
She spends a summer with her father’s sister Helen in Portland, who has a gentle, desexualized husband named Adam. “Adam,” her aunt says, “this is Elaine.”
“Pleased to meet you, Elaine.” She is already seven, but five years later, when she will spend her last summer on the west coast with them, she will run to Adam’s room in dense nighthood, and would say, “I’m having my period. I thought you should know, and also, ask if you had a tampon.”
Aunt Helen and Uncle Adam whisper to each other as they moved down the hall, “she’s so practical.”
They move like eels down to the bathroom, where they offer her a lone sanitary napkin, wrapped in pink paper.
She has a great plane ride, coast-to-coast. It is her first time flying, and if it’s bad she doesn’t have to do it again, so it’s good. Her parents have, as they are wont to do in times like these, the primitive times, separated. This is a difficult word for her to say, but she says it, and promptly forgets about it. She and her mother move to Buffalo, and sleep on cots in her mother’s brother’s living room.
“What do you do?” she says to her Uncle, whose name is Michael.
“I’m your mother’s brother from when she was a boy," he says. "And now I work — I work for a pharmaceutical manufacturer.”
“What does that mean?” she asks. No amount of explaining can express how he spends eight hours a day doing a job. The real question is whether the notion of your childhood being a dream with the same logic as adult life has any credence to it. Elaine promptly forgets about her childhood, as soon as she reaches the age of fourteen.
Her father calls the first Friday they were out there. She—somehow, somehow — overhears her parents’ conversation:
“I’m tired of sleeping on this cot.”
"I know you are,”
“You sending money is the best way of doing that. For me. Right now, with nothing in between or outside of it.”
In two weeks they are packed up to move down to Connecticut. Her mother doesn’t bother to explain it to her.
“A lot of things—in life,” she says, “a lot of things happen. This, sure enough, is one of them.” They drive on, through and down the whitest hills on earth.
She enters kindergarten, the a.m.section. A brown haired former gymnast with a tight face asks her what her favorite book was. She says, “Alice in Wonderland.’ The baleful instructor pulls out a fluorescent pink book, and says, “I’ll bet this is the one you have.”
Elaine pulls out a bound, faded copy of Lewis Carroll’s novel which she carries in her bookbag. In less than a week, she is in the second grade. Her mother helps her with her algebra, goes down to see her father, and gets pregnant again.
The baby is born, and is summarily named Frances. Elaine holds her sister in the hospital, and feels that something is really happening to her, something permanent. Her mother, never right for birth, stares, does the best impression of wistful. Three weeks later, Frances dies of infant death syndrome. They cry over the death of the baby, sitting in a courtyard of the hospital, with checkered tiles lining the walk.
“I’m sorry I named her Frances,” Elaine’s mother says. “And I’m sorry I named you Elaine. The names seemed wonderful and tremendous at the time, but I would have liked you both to have been named another way.”
“What other way is there?” she asks.
“Like if there was a thunderstorm and a river flooded the main square of Memphis when you were born, we could have named you River, or Stream.”
They laugh again, but only once more. It is Sunday.
Her mother gets a job as a dental hygienist, which she trained for before becoming a mother, and picks her up from school each day at three. On the third Thursday of that month, her uncle drives them to a GM dealership where they buy a white Chevy Celebrity. The seats are maroon. Her mother drives it off the lot, and to a house in Connecticut. The color of the house is white, and her father lives there.
She is in class, at age eleven. They are telling her about sex, as video plays against their grim faces, she knows this act and the perpetration of it is something she may never be able to control.
When she absorbs, finally, the pictures, man on top of woman, pressing, pressing, pressing, she asks her health teacher, a thin blonde woman who asked to be called Marie by her students, if it always happens that way.
“Usually,” Marie says, “there’s a few dinners first.”
Her mother buys her a bra.
“No big deal,” her mother says. “You’ll wear it. It can be—it could be — comfortable.”
“Mom,” Elaine says.
“Gertrude Stein never wore a bra.”
“First,” her mother says, “I don’t think that’s true or anything. It's certainly not true. The stories. The stories you read don’t exist outside of their telling. They are a wonderful imagination, and that is, unfortunately, all they are.”
Her parents are coping, as far as she can tell. She stays in the attic. Her mother wants to decorate her room, which suffers from stooped ceilings, but Elaine is not interested. She stacks books and pictures from magazines. She is making something.
They live that way, in the house. They eat dinner together, or she eats it alone with her mother and her father comes home late, late.
When she is fourteen, her mother moves out of her house, files papers.
Her father says, “You’ll just stay with me for a bit, until she gets set up somewhere else.”
She wonders if she’s the reason for the divorce, then decides she cannot be, she tries not to cost very much money and she doesn’t take up much space. She’s made a friend named Jessica, who is rounder in the face, and slightly Jewish, how much she cannot tell. They both like the book “Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood,” and like it in the same way, quick, effusively.
She and Jessica are outside a school dance, sometimes. They are getting air. Though Elaine has skipped three grades and is now a junior, she looks as old as everyone else. She’s just aged, age being an arbitrary thing as you are young, but extremely risk-specific when you are older.
“A woman,” she tells Jessica, “has moved in with my father.”
“What’s her name?” Jessica says.
“Does it matter?” she says, sighs. “But we do have similar interests.”
“An interest in staying alive. But I don’t think it’s going to work out. That’s nothing to base anything on.”
She dates a senior named Lucas. He is the one carrying around a boom-box all the time.
“It’s soundtrack, to life,” he says then watches music videos as if it was a spectator sport. She, momentarily, thinks of all of it as glamorous. It is the first time she has lowered her expectations, instead of others lowering them for her, and it feels easy.
Once, he calls her at her house.
“Come over,” he says. She comes over, three blocks. He is sitting on the couch, watching the Golden Girls. They don’t speak. She is wearing, per his instructions, a high, rising skirt and he slips his fingers into her vagina, for about thirty minutes. She wants to weep, not for pleasure, or gain, or for loss, but for her mother, bent over. There are moments, beyond teasing, within the moments that populate, accumulate, make one’s life.
A week later she comes over and they stroll through downtown, him propping the boom box on his shoulder, her reading The New Yorker, where she sees a picture of a woman wearing a broad, red hat. She carefully rips the picture out from the magazine and asks Lucas,
“Will you take me home? I’m having my period.” He walks her to his house, shows her her his sister’s medicine cabinet, wordlessly. She takes care of things without him.
She is in her first year of college. Her mother takes her up in the Chevy. Her mother is wearing a bright red dress. They packed in a big room where her mother mostly lives.
“I thought you might want these old playing cards.”
“I remember playing solitaire,” Elaine said, “but I don’t play anymore, and I don’t want the cards.”
Her mother gets married two years later. It is a small wedding, and she wears a sovereign shade of a common color, white. She realizes, not conclusively, as in, she gets a sense of, at the wedding, that she would have no idea, no idea at all how to describe her parents. To anyone who wanted to know.
She marries me on a Wednesday. I know, I know, but we have talked about her understanding of molecular chemistry, she has met my sister, who is deaf and also quite dense, which led he to understand that I am the same. She reads the same books as my sister, but I grew up with my sister, and I didn’t grow up with her, either way the blenders we receive will get good use, neither of us are cooks but we like to interweave our lives with machines.
I tell her often, that though her life hasn’t been horrible or otherwise worse than anyone else’s, it was hers to bear and bear well, and I’m sorry for that. Which I am sorry for. I smoke a lot of dope, and she likes the way I am when I am high, tries to see what she can get me to do. I hope I’m not another moment, I hope I don’t have something in her while I’m outside here.
And after she has told me all this, there is nothing I could discover, there’s no catharsis, no answer forthcomes, and the sound of my face pressed against sound is another in a series of counterfeit solutions. Even good-looking, smartly dressed women are, like worlds, completely insane.
On her birthday, she takes me to her father’s house in Connecticut.
“Are we having dinner with your father?” I guess. She drives the car.
“He’s not there,” she says.
We enter the house, we go up the stairs, and she shows me her attic room. It’s lined with the pictures she’s ripped out of magazines for twenty-five years.
“When babies are born,” she says, “their eyes are blue.”
I scribble furiously on a notepad, I want to remember what she’s saying.
“And then,” she says, “the colors change.”
Lee Montescu is a contributor to This Recording. He is a writer living in Brooklyn.