In a college dorm, in a prison, in a marriage
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An acute, contagious skin disease characterized by vesicles, pustules, and yellowish crusts.
In the summer of 1958, the summer before I started kindergarten, my family — my mother; my father; my sister, Marie; my mother’s mother; and I — took its first and last family vacation. I can’t even guess at the occasion, nor at what kind of summer it might have been. We went to a place called Conneaut, on Lake Erie, in the northeast corner of Ohio where it borders Pennsylvania. I don’t know if we were there for a week or a weekend; given my family’s bent for self-abnegation, I suspect it was the latter. That summer I had impetigo. For how long, I’m unsure. The entire summer? Just those days in Conneaut? (Did I indeed have it?) That my family ever ventured out of Pittsburgh, that the actual trip to Conneaut is not, for some pitiful reason, wholly imagined, is documented by a spate of black-and-white photographs stamped “1958” on their backs. I wonder who took them; my family did not own a camera.
I am six or seven feet off the ground, straddling the crook of a tree. How did I get up there? I wear a baseball cap, long pants, and a long-sleeved shirt to keep the diseased arm covered. My face reveals the practiced reflection of someone much older who has learned to value time alone. Beneath the tree is a playpen with a baby clinging to one of the padded rails. The backdrop is Lake Erie, flat and gray, disappearing at the cropped Kodak border. I am not allowed in the water, not even to wade: the impetigo.
He is on a blanket, lying stomach down, propped on his elbows with his hands together as if in prayer. He is smiling. There is a radio behind him. A tree full of apples shades him. My father does not traffic in deceit. His pleasure at this moment is real: he is not on strike, the mills are up and running, and he is working steady daylight. He and my mother are married just shy of eleven years. Later this same day, I will ride my tricycle around to the dark, shaded side of the house, where the ground is blanketed with rotten, fallen fruit. There I will meet a snake, and I will scream. My father will rush up with a stick and beat the innocent garter to death.
I wear a cowboy hat, vest, bandanna, jodhpurs, boots, lariat, and a silver-studded two-gun rig. Each night I cry in the bathroom, the fluorescent lights mottling my mother’s and grandmother’s faces, the cotton balls, alcohol, peroxide, and blue astringent. My arm is hideous and it hurts when they touch it. My mother and her mother try to baby me through each night of medicine stink and cauterization. It is awful for them, too: I sit on the sink in my underpants, whimpering, the TV flickering in the old-fashioned country parlor thick with unfamiliar shadows. Each night I beg them not to do it.
We are petting a small pinto. I am wearing a white sweat shirt with a rocket shooting across it. Marie has the self-possessed, scholarly look that will carry her unflinchingly into the future. Far behind us is the roller-coaster trestle. A man, who talks to the horse but never utters a word to me, walks each of us around a fenced track covered with horse droppings. The man makes no attempt to avoid the piles. He walks through them, just like the horse. Clamping the saddle horn, I am happy — with just this, if it would never end. The roller coaster snakes its way over and around the track. The pony never flinches. When the hurtling cars bang by, everything vibrates but the pony seems not to notice. It never alters its hangdog amble along the path of black mud and dung. Do I want to ride the roller coaster? “No,” I tell my mother, “I don’t want to ride it. Please.” But she takes me. Why? I end up strapped into a steel car on that rickety track and I am falling, screaming, begging. I never wanted to and my mother is holding me, asking me not to cry because she is crying, and it is dark in the strange bathroom with its medicine stink and the rubbing on the ugly, climbing up, up, then straight down screaming into the void.
This is a nice picture: the three of us holding hands, my grandmother in the middle. Her first husband (not my mother’s father) hanged himself in her cellar. I’m not supposed to know about suicide, but I hear things and ask questions, and what I know to be true is denied. There is Syrian blood in our family; it comes to us somehow through my grandmother. “Where did you hear that?” I’m asked, if I bring it up. I don’t know. I know my grandmother was born in Marseilles, France, and her father worked as an engineer on the building of the Suez Canal. She sleeps with rosaries under her pillows and the windows open wide even in winter. Her bathroom is in the basement. I don’t like going down there where her first husband hanged himself. My grandmother is the kind of woman who can bury husbands, who puts hardship behind her. In another year she’ll be widowed again. She sings to me in French as my mother swabs my arm, and I try not to cry — for her. My grandmother refuses to turn away from my disease. She sits with me on the beach and reads me Beauty and the Beast in the original French. She will go through this thing with me and with my mother, her best daughter. They know what makes a man. I try not to cry in this strange bathroom with these women who are strong enough to hold me down. My father and sister stay in another part of the house, pretending that they don’t hear me.
The water is up to their waists. My mother seems to be twisting out of my father’s arms in a way that shows off her pretty figure. My dad packs a solid upper body for a man of forty-three. I know they feel bad about me. If they could, they would assume my suffering. There is, after all, something pathetic about children. My parents never really learned to have fun together. A vacation is a curious notion to them. They are out there on the Great Lake waiting for the grind to start again — waiting, really, for it all to be over. It’s not their fault. I have forgiven them a thousand times. They just do not know how to go about being happy. Being happy is being left alone; together is complicated, painful. They are dear and helpless people stuck with knowing, but not being able to say; the children of Europeans haunted by silence. For them there can be no solace in intimacy, no nighttime together, only the unbroken horizontal glare of water and daylight.
Out of focus. Just a shot of the water and a couple of stripped marsh lilies in the foreground. So who might have taken this and what did he (she? I’d swear it wasn’t my dad) have in mind? I suspect it was thwarted art, a subconscious attempt to articulate the ineffable in a moment when the senses had latched on to something transcendent. The pointing of a camera at this dismal scene (Lake Erie was already well on its way to becoming a sump) and the clicking of the shutter was the best stab my beloved family could make.