by Royee Zvi Atedgi
I covet my neighbor’s life. I sit on the porch, I have nothing to do but sit on the porch, and watch her move through the foyer and up the stairs or into the kitchen. The first time I saw her was move-in day, late last August, her father straining against a corner of furniture. She appeared, just her arms, to take hold of the other side. Little blonde hairs glossy with sweat. They work as a team. By afternoon, everything is moved in and her father, with his hands on his hips, exhausted, looks at his watch. She throws her arms around him in gratitude and I want to throw up. But then the bottle that I stole from the restaurant––grounds for a firing and maybe prosecution––would have been a waste. It was free, at least that’s how I looked at it. I didn’t pay for it. I perform all sorts of mental gymnastics to get to this place where something stolen is simply free. I take all kinds of things. I know why I do it. I want to know my own thrill.
Nora’s father leaves in his pick-up truck, waves goodbye, looks so nice. Looks like a father. She moves up the stairs and to the left, into her bedroom. Opens the windows. Takes her clothes off. Nobody’s home and yet she only touches herself for a minute, pauses. I’m an amateur at telepathy, I’ve been reading some books, and so, with my brain, from my porch, I try to persuade her to go on. A notch in my voyeurism. But instead of masturbating, she rolls off the bed and does a little dance to some music on the TV. I start to hate her, but it’s not really hate. It’s envy. The purity of her life is what I want. But then I think twice. What kind of person would I have been with that purity? I should be grateful to know the world in all its sobering complexity, and so fast. That’s when I think that maybe they put me in gifted classes because I had a grasp on things about life that were beyond long division or reading a few years ahead of my grade level.
Nora showers, comes out in a towel and calls her boyfriend, Johnny. I know her name now because, last week, the mailman goofed and put her cable bill in my mailbox. I’m 111, she’s 114. I know Johnny’s name because they fuck with the windows open. Afterwards they come down to the porch, wrapped in a blanket, looking like they’ve been talking about the future. They don’t even see me. They probably mistake the ignited end of my cigarette for a lightning bug going on/off, on/off.
Our street is only two blocks from campus. I get up before the whole town is awake, while it’s still black out, and smoke joints. A light pops on around 7:00. By 8:00, she’s off to class, small Jansport, hair in a ponytail. Looks like a summa cum laude in-the-making. I went to school here, too. I was really into my studies. Though it took some time, I finished with a degree in art history. I displace all my trauma into art. I used to displace it on the animals, so, you know, it’s progress. When I was little, I touched the birds, I touched the cats, I touched the dogs. Their red rockets. Their assholes. Wondered if they had the capacity to internalize. To carry a memory. I’m sure it was possible––after all, they knew their names and they knew who I was. Only they couldn’t tell on me. They didn’t have my language. I didn’t have my language either. The words wouldn’t come out.
I sent out warning signals my freshman year of college. Shaved my head so that my nephew, my infant nephew at the time, shrieked when I held him because I wasn’t his kin, I was some alien. I tried to find the thrill in sex, but it turned out hollow, reckless, and with people I didn’t even like. I lost my work-study job for stabbing my perv boss in the hand with a pen. I was smarter than all the men I came across and told them so. If they whistled from their cars, I’d run after them, loosing rocks from my fist. When I was conscripted into attending frat parties with the girls in my dorm, I carried a big knife openly on my hip like I was Steve Irwin or something, just waiting for some chauvinist alligator to materialize through the pot smoke. I took my ex to court, finally, for violating his restraining order. Second to my father, he’s terrorized me the most. Not anymore. I almost told my family all my accumulated horrors. I didn’t, so I tried a little of everything instead, even tranquilizers.
The night I did that was the night I met Isaac, a Jewish guy, full of good memories. He’d just moved to town as a sublet in my friend’s house. It was a quiet street, on the other side of town from where I live now. Crickets were out. He was telling us about growing up by a Nabisco factory. How, at any given time, you could drive down the boulevard and smell freshly baked cookies. How the prices went up on the houses for miles around just so people could savor a whiff on their commute or, if they lived close enough, from their front yards. ‘That’s the kind of simple pleasure that made peoples’ day back then’, he said, with that far-off film of memory on his eyes. Listening to him talk, numb as I was on anything I was given, delivered me into this other dream-like state. An entirely foreign one, that felt safe. His face went blurry. Just these severe brown eyes. We were all on the empty floor of the living room, drinking gin and smoking. The furniture was being delivered the next day. I tried really hard to bring his face back. I couldn’t. I saw two of him, then three and four, until he took up all my vision like a kaleidoscope.
I passed out on his arm. He didn’t take advantage. That was how I separated men back then, by who took advantage. Being nice wasn’t enough. I was even suspicious of someone being perfectly nice. But I could sense there was danger in Isaac. Not like my danger, but just enough to work with. To draw me into his orbit. He had to, in order to see through the warning signs to the vulnerabilities. It took me totally by surprise. This capacity to see around the window-dressing of my fucked up life to get to the window of my fucked up life itself and look in. From that night on, I put Isaac in a category all his own. He’s an artist, like me, so in my mind we were equals. I wrote poems about him. I painted a portrait with my most expensive oil paints, which still I’ve never given him. It took three years for him to give me the time of day, but he eventually came around. When he did, I thought ‘Well now I’ll be fixed!’ So much for that.
When my co-worker at the restaurant uses the term ‘Daddy’s Girl’ to describe herself, I shudder. What she means is not what I mean and I don’t even say it for fear that she’ll draw the wrong conclusion from the hike in my voice, even though it’s the right one. Sometimes I wonder if I liked it, if I invited it upon myself. I read ‘Lolita’ in high school, that was one mistake––tripped me into thinking that maybe I took advantage of him. I know that’s probably absurd. I was five, maybe six. What did I know about the pleasures of the flesh?
I’ve read all the peer-reviewed articles and self-help books. The benefit of being an intellectual is that you can explain things away, you can obfuscate with terminology and statistics, signs and symptoms, cloak your pain with the sterility of psychiatric language so that what happened to you doesn’t even look the same as the original. It looks like a copy, like it happened to someone in a textbook. But what the mind forgets, or tries to, the body remembers. In exchange for messing me up completely, every time my father visits me or every time I visit him to maintain some kind of relationship with my half-siblings, he hands me checks with big amounts. I take them. The memos are blank.
I hate working at the restaurant, but the work is mindless, which is exactly what I need. I take peoples’ orders. I stand between them and the end of their hunger. If I mess up some highly-modified salad, I get scolded. Or written up. I don’t mind being disciplined. I told Isaac I rather like it, so we tried some extreme stuff. But the only time I get aroused enough to orgasm is in nightmares afterwards where faceless men appear and take their turns doing whatever they want to me.
When someone comes in that looks like my father (jet black curls to the shoulders and very pale) I hyperventilate in the bathroom before asking what he’d like to drink, if he’d be interested in any specials today. When it gets really busy, I descend into this autopilot that smears the running thoughts from still-lifes into abstraction. Where the only meaningful exchange between me and the customers is ‘hello’, ‘have a good one’, and their fifteen to twenty-percent tip. I’m a big advocate of the brief exchange, of the fleeting connection. People on the subway when you meet their eyes and in two stops they’re gone. That’s what I like. Between the money I make at the restaurant and the money my father gives me out of, I guess, guilt, I don’t really need to steal stuff. Of course, it’s not about the money. Stealing is just another way I displace.
Speaking of stealing, I got this impulse to cross the street just the other night. It was a Friday. I watched Nora leave around midnight with her two roommates. It’s girl’s night, Johnny’s on vacation. There was a tearful exchange the day before with the big suitcase and the extra-long goodbye. I left a window of time long enough to make sure none of the girls had to come back for some forgotten thing and then crossed the street. The new streetlights that were put in are harsh and made the leaves look plastic. The moon kept cutting in and out of clouds. Prepared for disappointment, I tried the door, but found that Nora had left it unlocked. Nora, basically asking for it. For me to come in and take her prized possessions. The way that I am, her carelessness enraged me more than my lack of morals. There was some good stuff in there, too. I sat on her bed wearing these cream-colored Louboutins, rifling through her Polaroids. Some were of her and Johnny, or her with friends. Others were from vacations, I guess. The Grand Canyon, Cabo San Lucas, San Francisco. Sharpied captions. I took this turquoise ring, convinced it was an heirloom. There was something about the way it was placed, just so on the nightstand in a small box of its color, apart from the other jewelry. She tore her room apart looking for it the next day. I watched it all from the porch: clothes flying, her on the phone with friends––venting, yelling, accusing, investigating. I twirl it on my thumb. What I think I’m doing is teaching her a lesson.
I remember Isaac asking me one night in bed, if I’d ever stolen anything from him. Which is weird when you think about it in general: why at our most naked and vulnerable, under cover of darkness, is when we want most to examine sin. I’d confessed, when we started dating, that I had a little problem, he didn’t judge. But he did want to know about motivations. About where I drew the line, if there was one.
‘So have you?’ he asked again, when I fell silent.
‘Of course not!’ I punched him, not hard, then pouted. Acted offended, as though he didn’t have a basis upon which to ask (my basis). As though I wasn’t a thief when really I am. But I would never take anything from him. Never. Maybe that was the line.
‘Just making sure,’ he looked up at the ceiling. ‘You know,’ he turned to me, ‘about what they say about stealing in the Talmud?’
‘I thought you weren’t religious,’ I teased. ‘A Seinfeld-Jew, right? That’s what I remember.’
It was true that Isaac wasn't religious, but he did believe in Judaism, in matters of the Jewish soul. There was a difference, he explained. Being Jewish was a way of life to him, something inseparable, mixed up in his blood and his humor, in his perspective. You could disown the temple but not your history. He had told me to read Herzog. That’s what I remember, too––his prescriptions for things I knew nothing about.
‘Has nothing to do with religion,’ he affirmed. ‘I’m trying to change your life.’ He looked at me, expressionless, unblinking.
I laughed a little. He was being sarcastic. He had no delusions, but he was changing my life. He was saving me, in his way.
‘Okay,’ I said, getting serious. ‘Okay, the Talmud.’
‘In the Talmud it says: ‘even to an object of minimal value, less than a perutah, one is not permitted to steal.’
‘What’s a perutah?’
‘A worthless copper coin.’
‘If it’s so worthless, then why does anyone care?’ I challenged.
‘Not the point,’ he replied gravely. ‘The point is not to steal period.’ And then let a silence hang as disappointment. I kept going. I should have just left it where it was.
‘Okay, well, how about stealing to teach a lesson?’
‘Even if I’m not gonna keep the item, if I know I’ll give it back?’
‘Even if they never come looking for it?’
‘Even if they never cared about it?’
‘Even if I’m playing a joke on them?’
‘So it’s all forbidden?’
‘Not all of it,’ he said. ‘For instance––’
‘Well when the fuck isn’t it?’ I snapped, surprised by the harshness in my voice. ‘Tell me. I want to know! When is it okay to just take and take and take…’
I buried my face in his chest and cried. I couldn’t stop crying.
If there’s anyone I want to tell, it’s Isaac. Not about the ring, but about my father. But I’m a coward. How could I bring it up to him in a way he would understand, with his big brain and his untraumatized childhood? I could have told him I was asexual. Could have told him I was only into girls. That I didn’t see him as a gender. That he transcended gender to me. Anything but the truth. Though that’s what he deserved.
Parts of my memory fade in and out like two radio signals competing for clarity. I can’t trust my memories. Not in the way Isaac can trust his. But there are two cats, one calico and one black, always at the basement window, looking for food. I remember it smelled like mold down there. The sound of my father putting in a load of laundry would send me into a panic. The washer made enough noise so that no one upstairs suspected anything. ‘Help me with this laundry, would you?’ He’s six-five, can totally handle the laundry by himself, but we play our roles. Obediently, I help him. ‘Daddy, I’ll fold.’ What was I supposed to do––not help him? I was six. I thought he needed it. The walls rattle during the spin cycle and that’s when he does it. I’m across his knees. And me, on my back, I’m looking at these upside-down felines, thinking I would die if I told anyone. I lie still, pretending to be dead. They spread their mouths in meow but I can’t hear them. Do they know what’s going on? Even if they did, they don’t have my language. I shut my eyes so tight it hurts. Everything is a barrier.
When Isaac told me he loved me from behind one night, I cried but he couldn’t see. A rhombus of moonlight––crossed in the middle from the double-hung windows–– showed on the bed, along with our sweat, with our almost-triumph. No one ever told me they loved me during sex. I felt so grateful in that moment, that he couldn’t see me crying. It didn’t matter that I didn’t come. I never did anyway, not his fault. I felt grateful for other things: here was this man who loved me, who informed me and showed me myself, who was my equal. Who wanted happiness for me when I found happiness repulsive. I’d see quirks though, from time to time, little properties in Isaac that were fatherly in nature, and I’d push him away. But then I’d want him back and he’d want me back and it’s like this carousel you never want to get off of, no matter how sick you get. When I’m in bed with Isaac and we’re fooling around, I have to tell myself, over and over, that I love Isaac, this is Isaac, you waited a long time for him, he endures so much for you. But I broke him, eventually. We sat in my garden last spring, everything on the verge of bloom, and he dressed nice even, to tell me that he couldn’t do it anymore. I said I wanted to at least remain friends. Not a good idea, he said, severe brown eyes so clear that it broke me, and drove off. All that danger, I drew it out of him and then some. The algebra of our hard-earned years together turned into desperation and resentment, the fatal x and the fatal y. I couldn’t blame him for leaving. I could only blame myself.
The last time I saw my father, about a month ago, he asked for my help in the kitchen. It was a Sunday, the house full of people, but I still don’t want to be in the kitchen alone with him.
‘Not now, Dad, can you ask Leo? I’m busy.’ I was flipping through a Cosmo, at everything unachievable. Nora reads Cosmo, leaves them on her porch, so now I read regularly. Leo gives me the look of an annoyed little brother. My stare is practiced.
‘Come on now,’ he calls again. ‘Just for the spices. I can’t get it right.’
I don’t answer.
‘Sophia, would you?’
Exasperated, bound by a duty I should have long ago abandoned, I get up from the couch, blowing air from my cheeks. My father is a decent cook, but he always under-spices. I go to work on the sauce. Grind peppercorn till my wrist is sore, add a little paprika, a little turmeric, cayenne, basil leaf. I throw in some cloves of garlic, whole. Some of the spices are way up in the cabinet but I don’t ask him for help. I climb onto the countertop in my shorts. I can feel him close by. I can feel his breath as I climb down. I finish what I’m doing. With the sauce properly doctored, I turn around to face him and, sure enough, I can see the outline of an erection through his jeans.
‘Dad,’ I say flatly.
‘What?’ he says with his eyes soft and imploring. I want to murder him.
‘Oh…that,’ he tries, covering it up. The kids are playing outside with my aunts. My grandfather snores in his recliner. I shut my eyes and shake my head, slowly, deliberately, like I’m trying to shake the memories out. ‘Really, Sophia, really, try to understand…’ he starts to sob, runs the back of his hand down my hair.
I want to run away. Not because I fear him anymore, but because of the opposite––I fear myself. Looking around at all the objects I could harm him with. And, even better, imagining the ways in which I would go about using them. But I can’t. I still love a part of him, pathetic as he is, crying because he misses what I spent my life trying to forget, trying to get over. But you don’t get over it. That’s what I learned. You just find a way to live with it. He’s still my father, you know? It’s not easy for me to look back, but there were times. We would laugh and watch cartoons. I liked Taz the Tasmanian Devil. He would call me Taz ‘cause I was a wild child. I ran around with all this unstoppable energy. We’d wake up early before anybody else and he’d make me pancakes in any shape I wanted. I drove him nuts with all these dinosaur shapes, but he did it. We’d ride bikes to the stadium and back, the parking lot empty in the off-season, the yellow lines blurring past, waiting to be filled. We lived so close to the stadium that when the Phillies won the World Series, we could hear the city come alive from our front porch. I was too young then to understand what winning a championship could do for a city. But it looked nice, to see grown men cry over something larger than themselves. That’s all gone now. Distant, too distant.
I saw Isaac not long after at a party. A friend of his opened up this little bakery in town and because we run in the same circle, we were both invited. We’re stubborn. We’d both show up, I was sure of it. When I came up the stairs, he was behind this makeshift counter, pouring wine into clear cups for the guests. We tried not to look at each other, but that only made it worse. I kept to my group of friends, them forming a triangle around me as if I were a dignitary, and tried to enjoy myself, to think of anything else but the fact that Isaac was looking right through me. I had on this dark purple lipstick. I knew what I was doing. By midnight, there was only enough wine for one glass. I was drunk. I sunk my nails into his arm when he went to pour it for himself. Selfish fuck. He stopped, said, ‘What are you doing?’ He smiled. He knew too. I said, ‘Let’s share. Come on. Let’s be civil and let’s share.’ We look at each other like wounded animals. Complicit in each other’s woe. ‘Okay, okay, let go of my arm!’ He said. ‘We’ll share.’ We disappeared. My friends couldn’t find me. We went underneath this overhang adjacent to the shop and I stuck my hands in his pants. I flinched when he cupped his hand between my thighs. ‘I missed you’, he said in my ear. ‘That can’t possibly be true,’ I said back, kissing him wherever it would land. Tiny nukes landing. It’s all really fucked up and sad. We’re not together, but we love each other. Nobody gets what they want.
I got out of work early today. There’s a bike race going on, this annual thing. There’s a cloud over half the town and the streets are blocked off. Underneath tents are sign-ups for different age groups, for the kid’s race before the adult’s race. Line ‘A’ is ages 3-5, Line ‘B’ is 6-8, and so on. Explosions of color speed past. Little tricycles mostly, and some who’ve found enough balance for a two-wheeler. All covered like miniature gladiators in protective gear. Their mothers watch from afar, consorting with other mothers. Their fathers fuss over them, tucking clothing in, checking loose straps, guiding them out of the danger of oncoming kids with a phantom hand on their backs, just barely touching. Shouts of encouragement overlap like crickets in the night. I try not to think about the fact that at least one of these fathers is molesting one of these daughters. It’s horrible, I know. But it’s hard to give people the benefit of the doubt. See? I can’t even enjoy a bike race. I can’t see it for what it is. Just like everything else, it’s more reasonable to believe in my suspicions.
I leave once the race starts. I go to buy some supplies down the street, then home, and paint for the first time in god-knows-how-long. It was on a big canvas and my old professor, who’s retired and runs a small gallery in town, was nice enough to put it up over the weekend for the gallery walk.
Art is subjective, that’s what they say, but to me that’s just for the people looking at it. For me, it’s always this objective thing in the beginning, established in the facts. I wore a nice black dress to the exhibit, put myself together a bit, a serious artiste.
When people stand in front of my painting and cock their heads, left hand gripping right wrist behind their backs as they bend forward, inspecting, cultivating surface meaning and artist intent, they can just barely make out what it is. I hear an elderly couple whispering to each other, making bets.
‘It looks like a decayed tooth surrounded by blood. See? There’s the cavity in the middle. It’s like an ocean of blood.’
The woman frowns. ‘I don’t know, Harold, looks like a washing machine to me, you know, when it vibrates toward the end of the cycle. That’s why it’s all wobbly-looking.’
‘If it were that, then why all the red around it?’
‘Who knows? I hate doing the laundry. Maybe the red is for anger or frustration.’ She winks at him.
‘OK,’ the man considers, with his left arm crossed over his chest, right arm like a swan rising up to rest on his temple. ‘Then explain the cavity-looking thing. I’m telling you, it’s a decayed tooth.’
‘Harold, that’s the window part of the washing machine,’ she says, annoyed. She points. ‘Look at those big smears of color inside. Orange, beige, blue, white. Clothes, Harold.’
'Ah, whatever––wow, this one here…’ he says, and they move on. I smile at the old woman. She notices, smiles back. Nobody notices the two dots in the very corner, by my smudged signature, one black dot and one orange. My witnesses. That’s just for me.
I walk home as the sun goes down. I didn’t sell the piece, but that’s okay. Layers colored like bruises fill the sky. I get home, plop onto the couch, smoke the tail end of yesterday’s joint for some appetite, and fix myself some food.
A woman is being interviewed on the TV. She’s talking about the fight or flight response in humans. I set my plate aside and turn the volume up. ‘…and so imagine this. You’re alone in the woods and you happen upon a bear. Instantly, your brain–––well-evolved survivalist that it is–––starts processing signals starting in the amygdala, which triggers a neural response in the hypothalamus, ending with this hormonal cascade of cortisol and adrenaline. Your body, in turn, gives you this binary choice: either you’re going to stand up and fight this bear, or you’re going to run from it. Your pupils dilate. Your heart races. You’re hyperfocused on only this one thing. Now imagine bringing the bear home with you. The bear is in your room. The bear is at the dinner table. The bear is waiting for you on your walk home from school. For people who’ve had tough lives, who’ve experienced trauma, the fight or flight response mechanism seems to be stuck in the ‘on’ position. The bear is with you every day so to speak, and so you have to choose, even in the most banal human situations, whether to fight or flee when all you were supposed to do was live your life.’ I turn it off and wash the dishes.
It’s autumn now. Perfect porch weather. I go out there. Nora and her girlfriends are out there with a little speaker. I can’t make out the song, just this distant thumping that belongs, another element out in the world. She sees me come out and waves politely. I wave back, recline in my chair. Turn a joint through a flame. I think about Isaac. The sky darkens quickly and something comes over me. Call it remorse, whatever. I don’t feel it often. I always feel like something is owed to me first. But I go back inside and wait until the town falls asleep before I tug the ring off my thumb and put it in an envelope. I walk through the dark and put it in Nora’s mailbox, with a scribbled note: ‘Sorry’. For someone with her life, this sorry will suffice. She’d be so happy to have it back that sorry would be enough. I often think about that word, ‘enough’. How it means ‘as much as required’ but also means ‘no more’.