Issue 35, Final Fringe

In Oquossoc

by Jessica Hendry Nelson Issue 25 02.07.2011

Here is a truth: I only cry when we make love.

“I know,” he says quietly.  “It’s okay.”  I pull at the flounced curtains beside the bed, tucking my head inside them to stare through the window at the falling snow.  Nick pulls me back onto the bed and wraps me up in the floral polyester blanket that scratches my bare skin and makes me laugh a bit too maniacally.  He stares at me with concern.  And so does that deer, whose tattered head hangs on the wall across from the bed, who will witness the whole routine – Nick’s round freckled back and the soles of my chapped feet making slow circles in the air.  The fervent harmonies, the two pallid asses, and that final black wall that I beat with my fists until it lets me in, tired and defeated, crying helplessly on a cement floor.  In those moments, Nick is gone.  I am alone, as I should be, and I feel like maybe I will cry forever.  My body does not seem to know the difference between ecstasy and death, joy and pain, and I begin to wonder if they are just the same after all.  Like energy, the needle vibrates whether the source is light or sound.  When I cry, I suspect it has everything to do with the dead father, absent so long and then poof, auf wiedersehen, the week before my eighteenth birthday.  Then, my sudden departure from Philadelphia, from my home, with all that sadness and mortality trailing behind me like the train of a wedding gown I can’t take off.

We met Nancy, the owner of this bed-and-breakfast, when we arrived in Oquossoc this afternoon.  She is big-haired and ebullient.  We are her first guests in many weeks and she is delighted to have us.  She offers us dinner: tomato salad and a spicy chili with cornbread.  Afterward, we sit by the fire and play Scrabble and I win, which means Nick has to call my mother “just to chat.”  Nancy is watching Wheel of Fortune in another room.  I can hear the clicking of the wheel while the contestants demand “Big money!” and Pat Sajak orders Vanna to “Show us an M!” and the crowd cheers wildly.

My mother answers and Nick says, “Hi, Susan!” too eagerly, squinting his eyes at me and frowning, so I know she is drunk.  She’s been doing this a lot lately – sitting in front of her computer all night and drinking a bottle or two of red wine.  She plays word games and smokes cigarettes, her two dogs panting at her feet and walking in circles.

It’s not me she needs.  I know that.  But I can’t help but feel that I should be there with her, watching movies and shoveling her driveway, teasing the swollen tics from the bellies of her dogs and wiping their paws when they come in from the yard.  My mother and I grew up together in many ways, waged some of the same vertiginous battles with my father, suffered over my little brother as he grew indignant and square-jawed. Our son, she’d sometimes say to me accidentally.  What are we going to do about our son?

Just as often, I feel as helpless as an infant, and I wish for my mother, if just to pick out my clothes and make me eat and force me out of bed in the morning.

Nick is gracious and talks to her for several minutes, as if he does not hear how her tongue has grown thick, the words running together like melting butter.  I know that voice well and after Nick says, “Bye, Susan.  Yes, very soon.  I miss you, too.  Okay.  Okay.  Uh huh.  Okay.  Here’s Jess,” and hands me the phone, I say a few words and hang up quickly.  She is sad because Eric has taken to snorting OxyContin in her bathroom, still lying and stealing and denying in that same fucking straight-faced way as the husband once did, until you feel it’s you who’s gone completely nuts.  I know how she feels, and yet I am unable to change it.  And maybe Eric is, too.

When I have stopped crying, I get up from bed to wash my face in the bathroom sink.  The soaps are shaped like ducklings and clustered in a porcelain nest, which makes me laugh.  When I get back, Nick and I lie on separate sides of the bed, wrapped in cocoons of exhaustion.  I have already forgotten about my father, about the amorphous desolation he’s left me in his stead, about the spectacle I keep making of myself, and the tender way Nick sometimes presses on my chest, as if to soothe away the pain there, whispering, Let it out, it’s okay. You can let it out. My grief is childlike and pure and has little to do with the father himself – he only represents the incompleteness all humans feel, in their own wretchedness, on whichever plane suits them best.  I feel my mind clamoring desperately to reclaim the higher consciousness of youth, those swift and heartbreaking moments of clarity that I lost forever on the day he fell down those stairs, seizing, and his bowel burst and shit poisoned his blood, already thin with booze, and his heart stopped, simple as that.

A blue-fanged raccoon chases me down to the riverbanks of consciousness, where I wake in a sweat and tangled in blankets.  Nick is packing his suitcase in the flickering glow of the muted television screen, and I realize he is leaving me here, naked in this velvet dark, my legs still half-buried in the alluvium.  This was inevitable, I think.  He’s finally had it with the theatrics.  The melancholy that comes on like a tidal wave.  The way I always want to eat at restaurants and hate to cook.  The birthmark on my back that looks like a melting snowman.  And how I never manage to remember which of his nieces is Courtney, and which is Britney.  It could be any of these things or something else entirely; I know so little of myself sometimes.  What I know so completely, in those first dusky moments after waking, is that this is a good, good man and I am sorry to see him go.

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Jessica Hendry Nelson

Jessica Hendry Nelson

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Jessica Hendry Nelson’s work has been published or is forthcoming in The Threepenny Review, Crab Orchard Review, Alligator Juniper, Fringe Magazine, and Aegis.  She is a finalist for the 2011 John Guyon Literary Prize Competition and recently won first place in Alligator Juniper’s national contest in creative nonfiction.  She was the recipient of the 2005 Richard M. Ford Award for Excellence in Nonfiction Writing. Jessica is also the nonfiction editor at The Fiddleback, an online literary journal and teaches writing at the State University of New York in Purchase, New York.