by KARA VANDERBIJL
This is how I learned to be angry. It was like connecting dots in tightening concentric circles until I reached the bullseye, using a pencil that gets sharper instead of duller with time.
First, I had to hate a place. Have you done this before? Hating a place displaces the hatred you have been taught you are not allowed to feel ever since you were in white Sunday-school shoes. Hating a place takes the white-hot lava of anger inside of you and erupts it into the far reaches of the Milky Way. You will feel it with a telescope. You will feel it groping around in the dark.
The place I hated was a small farmhouse in a small town outside of San Antonio in the big state of Texas. I hated the way that the road you take off the highway ended at this house. I hated the way that drivers had to be careful not to go too fast down this road, or else barrel into the small farmhouse or into one of the trees beside it. I hated the chain-link fence around it and I hated the garden hose hanging off its left side like an open artery and I hated the road that curls away from it into the countryside. I hated the big field behind it and the rusty tractor parts lying in the tall grass around it. I hated the old sash windows and the way they rattled during big Texas sky thunderstorms.
This farmhouse was my friend Marie's home and in the summer after our sophomore year of college she invited me to come stay there with her. I did not have enough money to go to my own half-home half-not halfway across the world and I did not think I could find a job in the state of California. I was promised that the big state of Texas did in fact offer jobs to blonde college sophomores. I was also promised crushed ice in Sonic drinks and hill country and deep nights. "We are going to be happy this summer," Marie said to me as we waited unhappy for our plane.
We had a layover in Las Vegas. As we sipped Dr. Pepper's, I watched people play the slot machines.
At first it seemed like we might be happy. Marie's father, a big Texas man, picked us up at the airport in cowboy jeans. He had an intimidating mustache but a kind smile and deep leather skin. His eyes were diamond blue. He drove us to the small farmhouse just outside of San Antonio in a large black sports utility vehicle that was pristine inside. The large black sports utility vehicle was almost bigger than the small farmhouse; it swallowed up the driveway and the canned burnt air-conditioning smell. Marie warned me about centipedes as we crossed the gravel to the kitchen door, which faced the main road. This was the door we used, and it was almost always open during the day; the front door sealed shut like a mouth in the front room, behind the corner of a chair, the end of a piano.
From front to back: a tiny hot kitchen, syrupy sweet tea bubbling on the stove; the parlor, with high school pictures of Marie and her two older brothers hanging on the walls; a tiny hot hallway, off of which there was an office and the master bedroom; a narrow bathroom papered with magenta rosebuds; and Marie's room, in the back of the house, next to the enclosed back porch.
Her day bed was sunken soft in the middle and she sunk softly into it, her face tired, gray. I didn't ask her how she was feeling then, or even later when she chose to stay in bed instead of eat chicken and cheesy broccoli and corn out of can around the table with her parents and myself, the stranger, while the old house hummed. "Marie, come out and eat," her mother drawled. A centipede scuttled underneath the furnace in the darkening hallway.
The next morning, Marie was sick. She got up before the house and I heard her retching in the bathroom over the whir of the window air-conditioner in her bedroom. I lay stiffly on the trundle and listened to her cough and sputter. When she came back, hugging her tummy, she whispered in a tight, hoarse voice, "I'm so sick." She lay on her belly and turned her gray face to the wall. It was Memorial Day, and hot.
Later, her mother came in. "Marie," she said, "Wake up. Wake up, it's time to get ready. Remember, you have to sing at the ceremony today."
"I'm sick," said Marie's voice from under the covers.
Her mother shook her shoulder. "Marie, they will be so disappointed if you don't come. Now, get up and get ready. Is it something you ate? You know you're not supposed to eat cheese. You ate some of that cheese, didn't you? Well, that was your choice. Now get up. It's time to get ready."
Marie protested, weak voice growing angry, desperate under the covers; when her mother finally left the room, she said, "I'm not making excuses for you," and slammed the door.
While Marie stayed in bed I went to the ceremony at the cemetery and listened to another woman sing the National Anthem to dead men and listened to a speech about how America is the best country in the world. Marie's dad fired a gun into the air alongside three other men.
I thought about Marie, about the disease that like a worm was eating her up inside and making her sick. I thought about the classes she'd missed over the course of the semester and how her lips turned blue sometimes and how her arms were thin because the nutrients from her food never really made it into her bloodstream. I thought about how she said she'd had this condition since she was five years old and that no matter how many doctors shook their heads and said the word "incurable", her mother wouldn't believe it, wouldn't accept that it wasn't something her daughter was doing on purpose.
I'd heard Marie throw up before, I'd heard the strangled noise she made and the way she didn't complain about it, only lay on her belly and waited until the nausea and the pain passed. I waited for Marie's mother to acquiesce, to look up one day as we sat uncomfortably in the parlor, glasses of sweet tea sweating rings onto the side tables, to say, "I've done you so much wrong," but in the morning she put her hands on Marie's shoulders and shook her on the sunken day bed until Marie turned around to yell. The screen door popped shut as I left the house to run.
The road that curled away from the old farmhouse shimmered in the heat as I ran. My thighs shook as I ran. I pumped my arms backwards and forwards. The sun was yellow and bright already at nine in the morning, hot, and my music seared my ears. I walked the last half-mile back to the house, from the old tree on the corner. A few hundred yards from the house, I heard a high shrill noise, just a pitch lower than the hum you sometimes hear lifting off electric fences. I thought it was an echo from the interstate, or maybe a television turned too loud, until the pitch deepened into a throaty sob and I knew Marie and her mother were screaming at each other.
I sat on the little step outside the kitchen screen door and waited, sweaty, until I heard the back screen door pop shut and Marie's sniffles as she moved through the backyard. I waited a few more minutes and then walked inside. Marie's mother was sitting in the parlor turning the pages of a book, her glasses on the end of her nose. She looked like she'd been sitting there for days. A glass of sweet tea was sweating on the side table next to her, the ice cubes melting.
The sink was full of dishes; I silently filled it with soapy water and scrubbed until my hands were red and raw.
As the summer grew deeper the fights grew louder and my hands got chapped from doing the dishes. One night, Marie was sobbing in her room after a fight with her father and as she swallowed hard she told me that she'd gone outside to get away from his yelling and he'd followed her and turned on the hose and sprayed her in the face so she'd stop crying. And then she told me how when she'd been small he'd duct-taped her mouth shut so she couldn't talk back. I held her as she cried, small, gray, frail, and I felt my insides crumble. I cried, too, and it was the first time I ever cried for somebody else.
The next morning, at church, I listened to a woman tell Marie's mother how brave she was, how hard it must be to have a child so ill, how sacrificing she was. I escaped to a stall in the bathroom and sat for a long time and felt my insides churning, the anger growing like a worm, eating me from the inside out.
But it wasn't the drunk brother, discharged from the Army, who'd sat on her and tickled her until she cried from pain as a child, who now twisted her arm sharply behind her back as a greeting, who made me angry; it wasn't her father, who came to me meekly on evenings when she escaped the house for a long drive in the dark country night and explained to me how he was worried about her, how he just wanted her to listen, who made me angry, it wasn't her mother standing at the stove stirring the sweet tea brewing like everything was fine, who made me angry. It was the people around them, the people who saw everything and then turned a blind eye, the people who heard what had happened and rationalized, justified. It was the people who said, "Honor your parents."
When Marie and I finally left the small farmhouse, a few weeks later, it was to housesit for people who hadn't cleaned their large suburban kitchen for months. Spaghetti sauce stains spattered across white cabinet doors. Cockroach corpses littered the stairwell. We drank Dr. Pepper's and watched reality television and I thought for what seemed like the thousandth time that summer why life couldn't be as easy as loose ends neatly tied up, as purging when you've bitten off more than you can chew. Marie wasn't sick at the house, not at all, even when she ate a little bit of cheese.
When I left Texas that summer I thanked Marie's parents because they had put a roof over my head and cheesy broccoli on my plate. I hugged Marie goodbye and told her to call if things got really bad and told her again gently that I thought she should take her brother's car and drive away, far away, as far as she could go. She said she might but I also knew she needed them to pay her school bills that year and that after that she'd be free and it made me feel angry sick inside to know she thought an education that'd eventually get her far away from them was worth this, these sharp diamond blue eyes, this woman silently standing at the stove stirring sweet tea.
When Marie passed away, a year after graduation, it was from complications from her illness. Still, I wrote a letter to her parents telling them everything I had seen and heard, telling them that no matter what they thought of themselves, that I knew the truth. I learned to be angry when I learned that the world still protects the powerful. I learned to be angry like you learn to love: by discovering that there are things that defy logic.
You can see them with a telescope. You can feel them groping around in the dark.
"Puerto Rico" - SPL (mp3)
"Drop" - SPL (mp3)
The new EP from Sam Pool, The Baleric Bass EP, was released on September 3rd.