The Silence of the Storm
Maxine is lying on the kitchen floor, drenched and laughing but I can hear nothing. My gaze is towards the teakettle, only, and the operator in my hand is faint, muffled. I, too, am sweat and water. Then she—the operator—asks me what my name is and I tell her I don't remember. I blink, three times; drops o of water weigh on my eyelashes. You are a very strange person, she tells me. My mind swells with thoughts like tide pools. I am soaking and nearly naked. She asks me what I am looking for and I don’t know this, either.
I am eighteen and it’s the fall. New York is beautiful this time of year, vibrant in a slow decay, and I finally have an excuse to wear my new, orange petticoat. My mother gave it to me; she told me Miriam, please, wear this blue one. It’ll look nice on you. With the receipt, I took it to the store and exchanged it for orange. Blending with the foliage, I am proud as I near upon the Met. It is my second time here this fall, and I go only for the Picasso exhibit. I took three hours to view the first half of the collection and am determined to do the other in four. But I don’t. I don’t even do it in two or one. Instead I am frozen, in front of the third painting in the set, one that I have already seen two weeks ago. Blue figure, sitting, with legs intertwined and arm bent overhead. She holds her body up with the hand that touches the floor. With her head tilted forward, it curves towards her chest; she wants to cradle it, but refrains. The arm above is energetic and violent, sultry and worn out all at the same time, and it frightens me. It frightens me so I watch it for hours.
I leave when the building is starting to close down. Iron bars are going up and the weight of the day is turning people irritable. A security guard in front of the coat check tells me that the counter has closed and that I will have to come back to get my orange jacket tomorrow. I walk home alone in forty degrees, but this fails to bother me. I think about going back to get my jacket but never find the time. Three weeks later, John and I left for New Jersey. That was the summer we got married.
That was good for me, even if I didn't want to go, I think to myself, pulling off sweaty tennis shoes and tossing them in a corner. Nowadays, it is hard to find the motivation and the time for power walking, even just around the block. Maxine and I lean back into my sticky leather sofa, our sweat adhering us to maroon and sliding down our arms. We aren’t typically soaked after a walk, but today the heat index knows no bounds. This is the kind of weather that old people die in.
I notice the stillness of a hot day that is unlike any other stillness. Nothing on the earth puts forth any effort. Air stays in its place. No trees shudder. Birds have gone away and children sit in front of televisions zombie-zoned, popsicles melt in their lap. All people are still, or near dead, or dead, locked inside insulated houses with their air-conditioning cranked up and their glasses filled with hard liquor. We spike our drinks, surrender to the TV, and slowly melt away in all kinds of weather, though. I don’t know how much the heat has to do with it. I don’t know why I said that.
Still clad in steaming running shorts, Maxine looks exhausted on the leather. I glance down at her Reeboks, the latest model in bright green and purple. She stretches her arms wide and lets out a yawn that feels like a sigh, and in one swift motion, she has swung her arms around and is hunched in on the table with the TV remote in her hands. The static sizzles and mingles with the pulsing molecules of the air and for a moment, I feel nothing but these tiny particles inside of me, and outside of me, bumping into my skin, and I see them all around me, forming the shapes of things in the room, coming together to solidify Maxine’s eyes, or the vase of dead lilies near the front door. I feel nothing of my size or my weight. I’m indistinguishable from anything else in the room and I feel pieces of me, floating, to form other parts of other things. Look, there my skin’s making up a window blind. My left second toe is fusing with that piece of dirt on the floor.
Voices fade-in and I again become a person. My skin feels strange in these running shorts and top. I feel sticky; I feel tight. Two lovers quarrel in Spanish. A man in a cowboy hat sings about love. Emeril tosses some shrimp into a frying pan and oil splatters. Complacent, Maxine leaves the channel here and slouches back into the crinkling couch where her chin crunches down to her breast. She is motionless and addresses me.
“You know, even though I didn’t want to do it, it’s a good thing that I did, don’t you think?” Maxine turns her gaze to me and oddly, I am caught off-guard. She looks at me as if I’m dumb and I stare at her in silence. “Miriam, whoa, hello. It wasn’t that hard of a walk.” Maxine sits herself upright and leans in towards me, studying my eyes.
“Come on,” she says and drags me into the kitchen.
Water fills a cup in the sink while Maxine simultaneously walks over to the freezer and grabs some ice.
“Gary went down on me last night.” She moves briskly over to the sink and drops the cubes in the cup, turns the faucet off. “Yeah, it was really strange. I felt like I was 23.” She hands me the cup and leans against the sink, looking satisfied.
Nine years after John and I arrived in New Jersey and one ear after both Luke and Mira had been born, I met Maxine at an estate sale. At a table full of antique lamps, Maxine had sought me out to relay her woes of divorce: all of the paperwork, the time and the money, she’d said. She was a little louder than other mothers in the neighborhood, but only slightly, and dressed like she was younger. It had been two months since she split with her former husband and Maxine had already found a boyfriend at the kitchenware table who she would sleep with later that night after her and I had a long cup of coffee and two margaritas. I had told her that I didn’t have anything to talk about, except for the usual things that people do but that I did have a tattoo on my backside, which she made me reveal. A flaming skull that I got as a joke with a friend in my university days. She didn’t understand the tattoo, said that I should try a divorce, then I’d have a topic of conversation, and laughed.
“Gary is an asshole,” I retort, staring hard into the chair-back in front of me. Sweat percolates down my forehead and hangs around my eye. I have to squint slightly to prevent it from entering. Maxine looks at me, astonished.
“Ga-ree has never done anything to you. What’s the big deal, lady? We come back from a power walk and everyone’s an asshole?!” Maxine huffs into her glass. “You just don’t like him because you think I married him for sex, don’t you?” It was Maxine’s second marriage. Of course she married him for sex.
“Jesus,” Maxine says, shaking her head and turning around to clean her cup. The salt water slips into my eye crease and I must squeeze, hard, to seal them.
John appears on the black stage that is my mind. He and I are naked and we’re facing, holding hands. He reaches down and steps towards me. Now, we are having sex standing up, John thrusting and me standing, still in the same, upright position as before. I do not move a muscle. Then butterflies shoot out of my head and fall down to the floor, dead. They lay in a trail behind me like a wedding dress train. John continues thrusting and I look absently ahead.
My eyes open to a wary-looking Maxine. Now shirtless and fanning herself, she raises an eyebrow skeptically.
“You know, no one ever said it was easy, Miriam.” She swirls the water cup in her hand and flicks small specks at her face and chest. The new droplets of water are indiscernible from her sweat-pregnant pores. The kitchen is waiting for me to inhabit it, the house looking for reasons why I should never leave. Pictures on the wall burn into me and the oppressive air shows my body no mercy. If I were larger, under all this weight, if I could push back, push the shape of myself into the stubborn air.
Maxine still doesn’t know I left New York when I was eighteen. I was in my first year at NYU and I didn’t return home for the summer, thought I’d take John up on his crazy idea. He was older, he had graduated, and for the first time, I had freedom. I could go to Canada. I could live out of a backpack. I could cross the sea, find myself somewhere with no reason at all but that I had no reason at all. I embraced this independence, spited my parents for scolding my bravery.
I catch Maxine’s eyes for the first time since walking and they look sad, like a child looking up after she has done something wrong.
One more sweat bead in my eye.
Maxine’s bare shoulders sizzle.
Among the stillness, so many things swell, hide and thrash.
Maybe it isn’t magnanimous, maybe it isn’t earth shattering, but I grab Maxine’s hand and lead her out of kitchen. The sun is now setting heavily over Bouventura Lane and shadows are cast on the ground, the evidence of giants. These houses stand proud and do not melt like everything else on this cryptic day.
We navigate through trim lawns, ivy, and swing sets. Bones, silence, and fury. I, in my pink socks, Maxine in her hip shoes and sports bra, we start into a run. At fences we climb, howling dogs, we dodge. I can feel mud and twigs and earth layers under my feet. At some point, I no longer am I running, but I feel the earth merge with the sky and my legs lift off the ground. I am propelled by the fuming energy, the inaudible tide pools that swirl inside of humans, of all these people in all these houses, and my tired, tired self.
At a hedged lawn, Maxine halts and starts pulling off her clothes. She comes over to me, lifts up my shirt and peels it over my head. Moving to the edge of the strangers’ pool, she stands, a patterned reflection of light swaying on her skin. As she stares down at her reflection, Maxine is beautiful. Her long ago days of dancing left her body hardened, her shoulders slender and strong, her curves petite but defined, and her feet, even from a distance: nuanced, every sinew, bone and muscle orchestrated and deep.
I, too, now stand by the poolside and catch a glimpse of myself in the water, my face disconcerted, terrified, sad and euphoric. My hair is brown, my skin is white, and I have a mole near my left eyebrow. I am about as pale as my mother and the backside of John. With this, I jump in and am submerged, pulled down to the depths of the pool. The water swells between my legs in bubbles and geysers, my fingers are buoyant and my breasts are caressed by the smooth pressure of liquid. I open my eyes. Save for the ends of Maxine’s legs which dangle like a child’s, I am left alone to a world of blue where my hair blooms bulbously and my skin pulls upwards and away. I find myself uncovered, bones and blood and organs that pulsate. I am unarmed.
Sometimes, Jonathon Ayers, I want to love you and myself. To have something to fight for, to get me up in the morning. Something that burns. Instead, I am left alone to a world filled with so much nothing that I drown.
Tonight, if anyone is listening, let me be the water. Let me fill the cracks and crevasses of everything and let me fade back into the sun.
My freshman year anatomy class. A lecture the day before Halloween. Professor Garber is excited, speaks of the human body as a work of art, the brain, the heart, the lungs, the spine, all of these things it can do, all of the things it can process, how it’s perfectly put together, how strong it stands, how miraculous it is that we function, that we are alive. How amazing it is to feel anything at all, to care about things. Garber pulls me aside after class, and later, up in his office, "you're quiet but you shouldn't be”. He told me I was smart and humble and wanted to kiss me.
We float on our backs to the sound of crickets chirping. I ask Maxine if she's ever thought about leaving. She tells me she wants a big cigar. She laughs and laughs and laughs and we echo into the night.
Maxine’s laughter, louder now that we are back in the house and hidden, cuts through the silence like a javelin piercing a target. She rolls from side to side, her knees at her chest, soaked and euphoric. She is unaware that I sit at the kitchen table with the phone in my hand, the operator mumbling in the midst of Maxine’s dissonant and eerie laughter. She tells me I can’t call myself and I tell her that she's got it all wrong. Then she mumbles some more and I can’t hear over Maxine, who is happier than I have ever seen her. Hello, the operator says. Hello Mrs. Ayers. Please, hello? I, suddenly, am also overcome by laughter. It comes from nowhere; it bellows out of me, louder than Maxine’s, louder than the operator, resounding through the kitchen.
But I don't stop, can’t stop. My body convulses onto the kitchen floor and my face pushes against the tile. My breaths are quick; my lungs hurt. Slowly, Maxine's laughter begins to fade and I am left with myself echoing in the small room, my sound, frantic, caught between the ceramic, reverberating off the cupboard door.
In a pool of my own sweat, spit, and water, I open my eyes, out of breath. Maxine is staring straight at me, frightened. She reaches for her tank top and hurriedly makes her way towards the living room, turns to me before she exits.
"You're totally weird. I have to make dinner."
Now, in this silence, I can hear the operator on the other line. The phone's hanging from its spiral chord. Her voice is static and her words indiscriminate.
I am sopping wet, but I am still here.