The kind you’re born with, the kind you choose, the kind that teach Catholic school
Subscribe and Save up to 55%
What is always speaking silently is the body.
— Norman Brown
On our way to the Maumee River Trail, my boyfriend, Lenny, asks me if I want to go to Albany with him in two weeks. He has found a really cheap Airstream trailer for sale on the Internet and wants to check it out.
“It’ll be fun,” he says, adding that we can stop at Niagara Falls on the way back.
“Niagara Falls!” I say.
For two years I have derided him about his only previous visit to this so-called majestic place: Lenny’s brother Stanley came up from Arkansas to go to a NASCAR race, and Lenny and Stanley ended up going not only to the race, but also to Niagara Falls.
It’s not so much the fact that they went to Niagara Falls that bothers me, although I would have liked it if Lenny and I could have seen the falls for the first time together. It takes away from the moment when one of you has seen a landmark before. Also, the first time is the most memorable, and you want him to remember being there with you. And besides, as I have reminded Lenny again and again, Niagara Falls is for honeymooners. Why would he want to go there with, of all people, his brother Stanley, an unmarried man who considers women only a slightly higher form of life than meat?
But that isn’t what really bothered me. What bothered me is that there are only three reasons single men go to that part of Canada: hunting, gambling, and strip clubs. Stanley and Lenny don’t hunt or gamble.
As soon as Lenny had gotten back from Niagara Falls, I said, “Did you go to the strip clubs, Lenny?”
Lenny said he was just trying to be a good host. That he went for Stanley. That he did not really care for that sort of thing.
“Did you get a lap dance?” I asked.
He said no, but Stanley had. And Stanley had offered to buy Lenny a lap dance, too, but Lenny had refused.
“But you watched Stanley get his lap dance?”
And Lenny said, “Yes.”
I asked if he’d watched the shows, the naked women, and the woman who gets into the glass bathtub, the one I’d read about in some of my freshman boys’ essays.
Lenny said he had seen all of that, yes.
“And you enjoyed it?”
“You’re lying,” I said, even though I did not think he was.
And he said, “Well, yes, I did enjoy it some. I’m a man, and I’m not dead yet. But I’d have been just as happy not to go.”
“Oh, so you did enjoy it?”
He said it wasn’t like that. He did not like it that much.
“Then why did you go?” I asked.
And he said, “For Stanley.”
This is how the conversation always goes, around and around. So when I say to Lenny now, “Niagara Falls!” Lenny rolls his eyes as if to say, Here we go again.
But today I am feeling generous. Today I think, Let it go. Just let it all go. Today I feel a need for tenderness. So I say, “Guess what: I will go with you.”
The light reenters his eyes, and he says, “It’ll be a good time.”
Here in northwest Ohio you begin to see the first traces of spring in mid-March. Ice breaks, and rivers run fast. Spring is dramatic here, unlike in North Carolina, where I grew up. There, the warmer days just gradually come closer together, a gentle flowing from one season to the other. In Ohio people driven mad by cabin fever cannot wait to get outdoors in the spring. They will do so even when the weather is not entirely safe, when roads are slick and rivers high. Every year you hear of people dying in springtime mishaps.
It is March, and Lenny and I have cabin fever. That’s why we are walking the river trail today, with temperatures in the low forties and the sky threatening rain, maybe snow. I am overweight and out of shape. After just a few yards, I am breathing hard and have to stop. Lenny stops, too, although he is in fantastic shape. He waits patiently, holding a canteen and his Nikon camera, which he takes with him everywhere. Lenny is very careful about the pictures he takes. Conditions must be just right. He feels a sense of defeat, even humiliation, when he takes a bad photograph.
“It’s a good day for taking pictures,” Lenny says.
We progress along the path, little by little. Before long he is holding the layers of clothing I have peeled off.
“Aren’t you hot?” I ask.
He says he is not hot at all. I look at him standing there, all cool and collected, so sure of himself, so confident that his body is working like it is supposed to. I miss my fully operational body. I miss my ovaries. I picture them looking like the valves on those ancient steam organs that play music at county fairs, spurting steam at perfect intervals, completely in sync with the whole mechanism.
“I’m sorry for you,” I say to Lenny. “It must be hard to be chained to an invalid woman.”
It’s not just that I’m hot. It’s not just that I’m out of shape. It is a weariness that lives in my chest. Sometimes it spreads through my body in waves. It’s not fatigue; it’s a dullness. No, not just dullness. It’s like Novocain to the brain. I feel the pressure of my thoughts in the same vague way I feel my dentist’s instruments when she works on my anesthetized teeth. The acute sensation is gone. The real bone and gristle and sinew of my life does not seem to exist anymore.
At night I dream of prisons and labyrinths, magnificent structures that have no purpose or meaning, dilapidated stairs, ladders and bridges that hang in midair, dead ends, holes punched through ceilings, leaving rooms open to the sky.
“I wonder if it’s trying to clear up,” Lenny says hopefully.
Looking up, I see the clouds are full of holes, like the ceilings in my dreams. You might say the holes symbolize hope, letting light into the world. You might say that, but you would be wrong. It is almost cruel, that little bit of light, illuminating the sad, broken-down place I am in.
The trail is slushy in some places, frozen in others. Deep ruts are everywhere, filled with water. Looking at the river, Lenny says, “You could almost go kayaking today.”
The river seems nearly calm in this spot. Oddly there is no ice, except what is heaped along the sides. “Lenny, that’s just crazy,” I say. “The water’s too cold. I lost some students like that once. Their canoe tipped, and they all died from hypothermia.” I picture the boys’ faces, three of them, their clear, trusting eyes, thinking of little more than having a good spring break.
“I know,” Lenny says with disappointment. “You tell me that every year.”
“That’s because I’m afraid you’re not listening,” I say. I concentrate for a while on my boots, the way they suck and slide in the mud.
“Wow,” I hear Lenny say.
I look upriver, where he is looking. “What did I tell you?” I say, nagging. “Farther up this way the river’s all frozen.”
“But it’s breaking,” Lenny says gently, filled with wonder. “Man, look at that.” Big chunks of ice are breaking loose and starting to move downstream.
“Yes, look at that,” I say. “Can you imagine kayaking in that?”
“Let me get your picture next to the water,” he says.
“Yeah,” Lenny says. “The light’s perfect.” He looks at me through the viewfinder. “Wow,” he says. “You look beautiful.”
“No, not now.” I don’t want my picture taken. I hate the way I look in pictures: like an old, fat person I no longer recognize.
“If not now, when?” Lenny says. “Come on. The light’s just right for it.”
“Later,” I say. “OK?”
The river is rising, flowing faster and faster, the water creeping toward the little vacation cabins with cars parked in their driveways. This is no great emergency. It happens every year; people who stay here have learned to expect it. They are throwing their possessions into their cars now, bound for higher ground.
Last month, I got an e-mail from my friend Georgette telling me that Eve was dead. Georgette asked if I wanted to go to the funeral with her.
I had been out of touch with Eve for a few years. Her life had been too full of turmoil. “I have so many problems of my own,” I would tell Georgette, as she struggled to get Eve to appointments with doctors, psychiatrists, counselors. “I don’t need Eve dragging me farther down.” Because I’d had so little contact with Eve in her final years, I did not feel right going to the funeral. I e-mailed Georgette back and told her so. But she convinced me I should go.
That night I dreamed I saw Eve in her coffin. I thought I could see her breathing softly — something I often think when I see a dead person in real life. Only Eve’s breathing got heavier and heavier until she crawled out of her coffin and came toward me without a sound. She pursued me through dark rooms, up and down long flights of stairs. I did not know if she was friendly or not, if she was trying to warn me about something or trying to pull me down.
Lenny and I have stopped on the trail at a place we call the “rock house”: a large, open shelter with a balcony overlooking the water and a fireplace at each end, built by the Works Progress Administration during the final years of the Great Depression. I have always thought the rock house would be a great place for a wedding. There is something Celtic about it that makes you want to roast meat and play fiddles and dance old dances that the feet know without having been taught the steps. But today, sitting with Lenny at one of the picnic tables, I do not think of dances or weddings. The rock house seems forsaken: vestiges of a bird’s nest in one of the fireplaces; the concrete floor littered with leaves, cobwebs, dust.
“Hey, Nora. Hey, Goofy,” Lenny says.
Lenny has started calling me “Goofy” lately. He does this when he sees my mind drifting. It is not as belittling as it sounds. He is worried about me. He knows the name Goofy brings me back to him.
The rock house is only two miles from where we started, but I am already done in.
I tell Lenny: “I am dead.”
Lenny nuzzles my neck and takes a deep breath. “You smell so good,” he says.
My clothes are soggy with sweat. I say, “Lenny, face it: I stink.”
Lenny takes a deep breath. He says, “I hope heaven stinks like this.”
“You’re crazy,” I say. I go out on the balcony. Lenny comes up beside me, and we watch the river together. The ice floes are huge. I imagine crossing the river by jumping from one floe to another, like the actors in a silent movie I once saw. The floes begin to break into smaller pieces, which churn in the water. The hunks of ice scour the bank, rip off overhanging limbs, uproot a weak tree.
“That would really grind somebody up,” Lenny says.
I imagine myself in the water, being ground up.
The gulls are in a frenzy, circling over the current. They scream. Maybe they are screaming in terror of the river, or maybe they are just ecstatic about the possibility of fresh fish. Like them, my thoughts scream, move in a tight circle, then fly off. They land on stairs and ladders that lead to nothingness. I try to relax, but I no longer seem to remember how.
“Let me get your picture now,” Lenny says.
I wave him off, gesture toward the river. “Aren’t you glad you’re not out in that?”
In Albany Lenny finds the 1969 Airstream to his liking. It is cheap, a fixer-upper. Everything inside, even the stiff, sun-rotted curtains, looks original, but the stickers on the outside are shiny and new: a cartoon character holding Osama Bin Laden’s decapitated head, saying, “Who’s next?”; the slogan “Beer: it’s not just for breakfast anymore.” I get the impression the trailer was previously owned by rowdy men who quickly ran it into the ground, then sold it for less than it was worth.
The dealer seems honest. He stands outside the Airstream, watching us examine the ugly gold upholstery. Among other things, he says, we will have to do some serious plumbing. The previous owners let the pipes freeze and burst. “All of this old plumbing needs to go,” he says.
Regardless, it’s cozy inside the Airstream. The rounded edges make me feel as if I’m in an egg.
The seller leaves us alone to think about it. Lenny raises his eyebrows at me and asks what I think. I tell him it looks all right, but all those bumper stickers will have to come off.
“Maybe we’ll get some new ones,” Lenny says. “Hey: ‘When the trailer’s rocking, don’t come a-knocking,’ eh?”
I snort out a little laugh, but we both know this is just wishful thinking. Lately sex has been an exercise in futility. Sometimes it feels like a procedure. Sometimes I do not feel anything at all when he touches me. It’s as if the body I am in isn’t mine. Sometimes sex is like watching somebody falling down a bottomless pit. Then I realize the person falling is me.
© James Carroll
Eve’s funeral was in Findlay, Ohio, where she had recently moved. One of the city’s largest industries is making flags, which sell well during patriotic times like these. Findlay has done well under Bush. On the day of the funeral, flags were snapping wildly on every pole.
Georgette picked me up so we could ride to the funeral home together. It was a pretty day for the end of February: cold and sunny. Everything had sharp, crisp edges, even the shade under the evergreens. During the ride, Georgette told me that Eve had been in her new apartment only a month. Her neighbors had figured something was wrong after they hadn’t seen her walking her dog. By then Eve had been dead about a week.
At the doorway to the chapel a man and a woman greeted us: Eve’s parents. Her father was watery-eyed and hoarse. He seemed tired from grief and traveling. He kept saying, “Tweety Bird, Tweety Bird.” I had no idea what he was talking about. Then Eve’s mother explained: “Tweety Bird” was what they had called Eve.
I glanced around for a coffin, wondering how similar Eve would look to the Eve in my dream. With apprehension I remembered watching her take those dead breaths. But there was only a little urn surrounded by photographs of Eve and evidence of her accomplishments: her master’s-in-creative-writing diploma; an issue of a now-defunct literary journal that had published one of her poems; a certificate for a business course she took when the writing career did not pan out. There were only two other mourners, who turned out to be Eve’s Findlay neighbors. The pastor had not known Eve and quickly ran out of things to say, so he asked each of us to share a memory.
“She loved animals,” one of the neighbors said. “She was good to her dog.” Everybody nodded supportively, and this emboldened the woman to add, “You can tell a lot about a person by the way they treat animals.” Eve’s other neighbor said, “That’s true.” That’s all she said.
Eve’s mother told us how independent her daughter had been, even as a little girl. Once, when she was two, she had tried to run away from home. Eve’s father couldn’t speak. Maybe he had worn out his voice saying, “Tweety Bird.”
By order of seating, it was Georgette’s turn. She said something about Eve’s dedication to teaching classes as a graduate student.
When it was my turn, I told how Eve had given me two of her wool sweaters when I first came to Ohio, because I did not have enough warm clothes to get through a Midwestern winter. Eve, who’d grown up in Wisconsin, knew the cold intimately. It was a true story, but I did not feel good about telling it. I had done it not to honor Eve but to get myself through an uncomfortable social situation.
Then the pastor said, “I have to admit something to all of you.” We looked at him expectantly, waiting for some important revelation about Eve. “My shoes don’t match,” he said. I looked at his feet. Both shoes were brown, but one had tassels and the other did not. There was a round of fidgety laughter, and then the pastor wished us all the best, and asked God to bless us. I wondered if the pastor had worn mismatched shoes on purpose; if he did this often, to relieve tension at awkward moments.
What I was really thinking about at the funeral was not those sweaters, but how Eve and I had once spread a blanket beneath a big maple outside Hanna Hall, where we were taking writing classes together. We talked about how we were going to be writers, and that was all there was to it. It did not seem there was any way we could lose.
My feet were in the stirrups, and the OB-GYN had his hand inside me, telling me it all needed to come out. I could see the door behind him, and I waited in fearful anticipation for somebody, some janitor or stranger, to open the door suddenly with an “Oh, sorry!”
“What do you mean?” I asked him.
“What are you?” he said. “Forty-eight? Nine?”
“Six,” I corrected him, remembering with a start what I’d told my best friend, Jane, when we were teenagers: That I never wanted to get old. That I did not want to live past fifty.
“Well,” the doctor said, “you are probably premenopausal.”
Or that’s what I heard him say. I found out later he’d really said “perimenopausal.” But he did not explain any of this to me then.
“You’ve been having hot flashes, haven’t you?” he asked laughingly. “Tell the truth.”
“No,” I said. “I haven’t.”
“No hot flashes?”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes, quite sure,” I said, although I was becoming more unsure by the minute.
“Well, all of this has to come out,” he said. “You have a number of problems.” He said to think of it as rusty plumbing that I did not need anymore, since I was close to menopause anyway. Then he said, “You may get dressed now.”
I mentioned this later to Julia, another university part-timer like me who dreamed of escaping the hell of endless classes and papers to grade with no insurance benefits. (“For the money I owe the medical establishment,” I once told Lenny, “I could buy myself another shabby house.” “Thankfully,” he said, “you only need one of those.”)
When I told Julia about the “rusty plumbing” remark, she said, “I know. They always say something like that when you are in the most vulnerable position.”
Thank God, I thought. Someone understands.
“This can’t possibly be the way to Niagara Falls,” I tell Lenny.
“Nora,” Lenny says, “this is Niagara Boulevard. Why wouldn’t it be the way?”
We are pulling the Airstream, which we have nicknamed the “Silver Twinkie.”
I am quiet for a while, wondering about time and space, life and death, God and the devil. I am wondering what I have to live for anymore, really.
“Hey, Goofy,” Lenny says. “What are you thinking about?”
“It doesn’t look like nothing much,” he says. “Hey, I didn’t hurt your feelings, did I? When I said that about Niagara Boulevard?”
I tell him my feelings are fine.
He says, “Me and Stanley didn’t come into Niagara Falls from this direction.”
“We must be coming in the old way or something,” I volunteer. The place looks forgotten by time: boarded-up welcome centers, weedy lots underneath dirty snow, fifties motels.
“Maybe it’s the time of year,” Lenny suggests.
It is true: we are going to the falls out of season. But the route looks permanently neglected. It reminds me of North Carolina Highway 17 in the seventies, after I-95 stole the New York-to-Florida traffic. All the businesses along 17 died. Trees grew in motel swimming pools, and buildings fell in on themselves.
“What do you think happened to this place?” Lenny says.
I say, “It doesn’t take long for things to fall apart.”
After the funeral, Georgette and I stopped at a chain restaurant that advertised food “just like Mom’s.” What we got was processed meat, instant potatoes, and metallic-tasting vegetables, all barely warmed over. At another table, a man grunted appreciatively over his food. I could not believe it. The sounds he made were sickening, and I imagined throwing my plate at him. Then I felt sorry for him.
I could not get out of my mind the idea of strangers discovering Eve’s body. That was the worst part: people finding a lifeless lump where you used to be.
“Do you think she killed herself?” I whispered to Georgette.
I had been avoiding asking the question. The newspaper had called it a “head injury due to a fall brought on by an accidental prescription-drug overdose.”
Georgette shrugged. Then she whispered: “Yes, I do.”
“I knew she was unhappy,” I said.
“How much did you know?” Georgette asked.
I told her I knew about the violent boyfriend, the one who’d yanked Eve up off the floor by her head, damaging her spine so that she had to take painkillers the rest of her life. I knew that she’d become addicted to these drugs; that in order to write poetry she had to cut back on her medication, because it dulled her mind, which meant she wrote all her poems in physical pain.
Georgette nodded but did not add anything. I did not tell her that, years ago, when Eve had told me these things, I had felt only mild concern. I had not yet stood at such a precipice in my own life. I had not felt alone in the world, the jackals closing in.
Georgette sipped her coffee. “Burnt,” she said.
Before having the operation, I switched doctors to get a second opinion. My new doctor thought to arrange her examining table so that the patient faced the wall, not the door. As she pressed my abdomen, I said, “Do you feel that big lump?”
“When did you first notice it?” she asked.
I did not want to answer. “About six years ago.”
“Why did you wait so long?” she said quietly.
I said I didn’t know.
“You should listen to your body,” she said. “It’s not a lump. It’s a mass. I concur with the first doctor.”
I hated that the other doctor was right — not because I would need to have an operation, but because of how he had made me feel: like a weekend plumbing project.
I liked my new doctor, even though her prognosis sounded ominous. I had never before had the possibility of my death explained to me so gently.
The sun is bright, too bright, and there is a slight nip in the air as Lenny and I walk from the parking lot to the falls. Chunks of ice are floating down the river. Children scoop dirty snow and throw it into the water with their bare hands. We can hear the roar of the falls up ahead.
“Is this the way you remember it?” I say to Lenny, still ribbing him about coming here with Stanley.
“Now, what did you want to go and ask that for?” he says.
“Because that’s the kind of woman I am,” I say.
“It was warmer that day,” he says. Lenny is not a big fan of the cold. “But the company wasn’t near as pleasant.” He smiles and fiddles with his Nikon. He says he thinks it’s too bright to take pictures.
Good, I think.
“I sure would like to get a picture of you in front of the falls,” Lenny says. But I know he will not take a picture just to take it. He would rather have no picture at all.
“What would anybody want to honeymoon here for?” I say.
“Ask them,” Lenny says, pointing to a bride and groom surrounded by wedding guests trying to snap their picture. “They’ll be disappointed,” Lenny says. “Those pictures won’t turn out at all.”
“Oh, well.” I cannot fault them for trying. Seeing the bride, I think of the Maid of the Mist, an Indian maiden who supposedly tried to kill herself by running her canoe over the falls. Not incidentally, there are signs posted all over the place about suicide-prevention services. My favorite says, Call or Stop By for an Appointment.
Tourists from all over the world are snapping pictures. They do not care that the bright sun reflecting off the water will ruin the images. The photos they take home with them will be enough to prove they were not imagining it: Niagara Falls exists, and they were there. Looking down into the vast, roiling chasm, I can understand the desire to capture Niagara in a photograph. Even Lenny keeps raising the Nikon to his eye, hoping for some change in the light. He looks at the falls through the lens, frames it from multiple angles, tries all the possible adjustments to his camera.
A skinny teenager standing right beside us asks a park official, “Like, how many people commit suicide at this place, like, in a year?”
“About one every two weeks,” the official says.
“Wow,” the teenager says, genuinely amazed.
I am surprised it’s not more. I myself am thinking in an offhand way about how a slip of the foot might look like a springtime mishap.
Just before coming to Niagara Falls, I went to see my doctor again. The receptionist said, “Do you still live at so-and-so?” And I told her, “Yes.” And she said, “Is your home phone still such-and-such?” And I said it was. And she said, “Is your work number still the same?” And I said, “Yes.” And she said, “Then everything’s the same, right?” And I hesitated a second and swallowed hard before saying, “Yes, everything’s just the same.”
After the examination, my doctor asked, “Do you miss your ovaries and your uterus?”
And I said, “It’s been rough.” I told her about the depression, the loss of will.
“I know,” she said. “A lot of women go through that.” She said she was sorry, that she had thought about my case. Another patient she was seeing at the same time as me, who had the same problems I did, had died. And I thought, Somewhere a family is crying.
“I’ve considered how this surgery might have helped you or harmed you,” my doctor said. “Sometimes you just have to weigh the alternatives and make a choice. You want to believe you’ve helped more than you’ve hurt.” She asked how I was managing.
I said, “I’ve got a good man to be with me.”
She said she had seen how Lenny had stayed with me at the hospital. Even at night he refused to leave; the nurses had to give in and let him stay. He slept in a cruddy plastic chair all night, his head lying on the bed beside me.
Now I hear Lenny say to the park official, “Where can somebody go around here to get a good crabcake?” He sounds far away. “What this place needs is a seafood restaurant,” I think I hear him say.
“What this place needs is a whole lot of things,” somebody else says.
Lenny says something else. Then he says something to me — at least, I think he’s talking to me — about the Canadian side being better. I do not imagine it is. “Hey, Nora,” I hear Lenny say. “Nora!” he says louder. “Hey, Goofy!”
Something lifts in me then, like the mist rising from the water. I turn to look at Lenny. I can scarcely see him, the Nikon to his face, lens pointing at me, his expectant finger on the button, the camera focused. The film is wound and ready. The photographer is ready. The picture is snapped.