to my love, a portrait
by Nicholas LaMendola
“Aema is fourteen. Maybe that means something to you. Maybe that’s all I have to say by way of introduction, maybe that’s enough for you to see her as she is. In my defense, I tried to go further than that, I tried to delve deeper into her, but maybe I started from the wrong place, maybe I aimed myself in the wrong direction.
She finds herself alone, at home, at school, all day long, alone. She hugs her jowly dog to her chest because he’s all she’s got. The black and white clarity of the world she grew up in, the world of her childhood, its boundaries are softening, its colors swirl into a new, murky grey truth.
This is something that I did for her. And, obviously, I did it for myself too, but not solely. Of course, she’s still so young, she may still only see things one of two ways.”
– Grandpa, afterwards
She hits play.
She forces the pad of her finger down onto the button marked with the triangle that is aimed at the button marked with the square that is beside the button marked with the circle that she’s never used. There is a click as a mechanism disengages, a lever yawns upon its hidden fulcrum, a spring coils reluctantly. There is another click, this time with expectation, as her finger hits bottom. A motor’s torque whines before the blast. This is some machine, she thinks, although she probably uses different words. Brilliantly, methodically designed; artisanally precise. She sees through its translucent casing to the intricacies of its construction, watches its gears as they turn, mesmerizingly. She has no idea how it works, but she’s sure that nobody builds stuff like this anymore.
And out comes the music! Chlorine bleach shot deep into a vein. It’s immediate, it’s confrontational. It sounds older than anything she’s ever paid attention to. It hits her like the smell of a corpse, found soupy in an abandoned refrigerator.
She forced me to use that line. I was just spitballing, but I blurted it out, and you should have seen the way her eyes lit up. I told her it was too horrid, I told her, you don’t have to be outrageous to be interesting, but she insisted. She’s a teenager. Of course, you’ve understood that for a long time now, certainly longer than I have.
That’s my way of telling you – she knows about this.
She wraps herself up in the cloak of her earphones and slips through her day, strafing to the left and right of the gazes that bear down on her, sidestepping her interactions and their mundanities. Fizzy midrange froths outwards like a barrier around her ears, and we on the outside of her head can tell only that what she’s listening to is loud. We can’t tell what it is she’s hearing. If it’s actually the music, or just the noise it represents.
Insulated, skulking the hallways of her school, the noise fosters her immunity, shades her with the hazy blurred lines of a weirdo outcast. Where did she find those clothes? Who paints their nails black anymore? What a freak! they whisper as she passes.
Although they probably wouldn’t say freak. I don’t pretend to know how kids her age talk. I have no idea which word they might pluck from the vacuous typhoon of their thoughtless culture. I could ask her, but she wouldn’t tell me. She’s doing a pretty good job of pretending that she can’t hear them.
She moves sideways through her time at school. Afterwards she ignores the buzzing alerts of her ride, choosing the slow walk home. You must know that she hasn’t been getting into the cars you keep sending.
Eyes at her toes, she drags her soles over the gravel, past the rows of rotting houses, the brown turf of a dead park, the wilt of our fallow civilization. Cars detect her warm body, analyzing her projected path, beading past her in hurried clumps. Perhaps they feel, surprise? Concern? That she is all by herself. That she doesn’t need their help.
She is alone in this world that we failed to end with a pinprick and a bang, in this country we’ve handed over to her, with all of our untied loose ends, with all of our hot air sputtering as it leaks from the balloon of human progress. Her music blares over all of it.
Sorry for pontificating. It’s just more fun for me to do it this way, me with so much time on my hands, spinning my wheels, making you wait. It might actually do you some good, to sit still for a change.
Next is something she volunteered.
It’s something alright. You’ll see.
It took her less than a second to dig that up and text it to me. Our first piece of collaboration. She told me she has tons more where that came from, and I’ll have to take her word for it. Not even I, with nothing to fill my days, have patience enough to sift through that encyclopedia of slander. But this was the first thing she gave me to share with you. Read into that as far as you’d like. Maybe she was just having a bad day. I happen to think Aema is a beautiful name, but I suppose I can see her point.
Anyway, she makes it home. Finally.
Rid of the gangling masses of adolescent hysteria, away from the rushing undertow of barrelling automobiles, out of the slurry. She slides off her earphones.
It’s quiet in here.
It’s always so quiet in here, where the fuck is everybody? she thinks to herself, although you’ve told her, you keep telling her, to watch her language. It doesn’t bother me, just so you know. She’s a teenager.
A pair of ears perk up from a distance when her bag hits the floor above. A head lifts and a nose sniffs the air expectantly. Listening as her footsteps creak along the hardwood in his direction. She whistles to him. He remains balled up, but his tail begins to flap against the fabric of the sofa, raising flecks of dust into the air.
She doesn’t take her shoes off at the door. Her wet soles squeak on the lacquer, dropping gritty dribbles of brown. You’ll get home later and you’ll sigh, and slide off your heels and pinch their edges between two fingers and tiptoe across the floor, but you won’t see one of the puddles, and you’ll take a step and feel the chill ooze through your stockings and up between your toes, and you’ll yell out so the whole house can hear. Aema, down below, won’t make a sound.
She and her dad used to slide through this hallway sock footed. He taught her to wind up with the motion of a pitcher on the mound, one foot on the floor and one on the near wall so she could push off. The house would shake with the thumping of their slick feet racing. At the threshold they’d lean back, shoulder to shoulder, gliding like surfers through the kitchen, and crash into the fridge. You would yell from upstairs that they were going to knock the pictures off the walls. They’d try to hold it in, to keep quiet, but they’d laugh until they couldn’t stand.
But Aema doesn’t take her shoes off anymore. She clomps through the kitchen and around the corner to the basement door. With it hanging open, she can already hear the thwacking of his tail against the couch. She smiles, almost imperceptibly.
He won’t rise out of his pool of warmth; she’ll have to come to him. It’s something he does on cold days. Lazy like a reptile. But the wagging intensifies as she descends the steps, and he squirms and whimpers like an infant.
She drops her body onto him like a blanket, absorbing his love and exhaling all of the garbage of her day. Her cheeks press into his washcloth ears, her forehead mushes into the wet of his nose. His cornchip breath is hot on her neck.
He wriggles out from beneath her pinning weight, twisting his elastic spine to reveal his belly. Her fingers disappear into his thick fur. He makes a sound that is a squeal and a whinny and a yawn all at once, as he stretches his limbs taut. Mark Twain once said “The more I learn about people, the more I like my dog.” I don’t think they still make kids her age read Twain, but I bet she’d like him. Or maybe she wouldn’t. What do I know?
They’ll lay like that awhile, intertwined, until she starts to think about how long she has until you get home. She’ll hop up the stairs, two at a time, and set a pot on the stove to boil. She’ll pull a box out from the pantry and pour in the pasta before the water is even warm yet. She’ll fill the dog’s bowl with food and then she’ll zone out, staring out the window, until the hiss of the water boiling over brings her back, and she’ll remove the lid. The dog will have finished eating and will wait at her feet. She’ll drain the liquid and mix in the cheese powder and take the pot downstairs with her, and tomorrow she’ll forget that she left it down there and the orange remnants will have hardened into a crust.
With the sky already darkening outside, the two of them will prepare for the long night together in the room they share.
Tendrils of light skitter across her retinas. There is thunder in her pulse, there is wrenching chaos in her chest. Bulbs of florid energy trickle along her nerves, sucked outward through her limbs and her digits in a rolling heat. Thoughts of tomorrow I have to and then the day after and what if I can’t ram their hardened foreheads into her calm, and she’s losing the battle. She’s losing the war.
She kicks the covers off of her sweaty legs and the dog raises its head in sleepy alarm. Horrors loom in piles at the corners of her vision. She can’t stay trapped in this Place.
Tapping on her phone, she reads 12:45 am. That’s exactly what time it feels like. She picks up the coat that hangs on her chair. She slips on her shoes and tosses clothes from one heap onto another, searching for a hat. The dog has set his head back down and is already breathing regularly. He looks startlingly old tonight. Greying, and weak. She knows he won’t come with her. She doesn’t disturb him. But she’d let him come, if he wanted to.
She uses her phone to light up the path to the stairs.
The open fridge lays long shadows across the kitchen. She can hear the tumble of Styrofoam and plastic as items are shuffled around in search of something. Grunts of frustration as someone doesn’t find what he’s looking for. The top step creaks and a pair of eyes pop up over the island.
“Hey kiddo, you’re up late!” her uncle proclaims at a mortifying volume.
“Goddammit Jason,” she whispers, spooked. “Could you be any louder?”
“Oh sorry,” he says, not sounding sorry, “were you sleeping?”
“No, idiot,” and here her rolling eyes complete an orbit around the earth, “you’re going to wake up my mom.” She chooses not to say ‘your sister’. But tonight, at least, he doesn’t seem drunk.
“Good call Em, gotta keep the old ball and chain off my back,” he says as she passes by. “Where are you going?” With a tone of curiosity, as if, depending on how interesting he finds her answer, he might tag along.
She shuts the front door behind her.
“Bitch,” he mutters to himself, leaning down and sticking his entire head into the fridge in search of some long forgotten treasure.
The night’s clinging mist settles into her, through her jacket, and she is shivering before the first street light winds a shadow around her feet. An empty car pulls silently beside her from out of the darkness, greeting an unexpected fare in need of transportation.
“Screw yourself,” she lobs over her shoulder, which isn’t a command it has been programmed to recognize.
“Ma’am, would you like–”
“No-oo,” she says slowly and indisputably. It retreats emotionlessly, turning off its lights to conserve battery.
Tonight is a night without a destination. But if you think that means it’s all about the journey, you might want to have a chat with your daughter. On that point, it is at this moment that she pulls out a cigarette and lights it. Does that strike the same fear in the heart of a mother that it did to mine when I was her age? Does it even bother you? Won’t they just grow her a new respiratory system in a jar?
But she’s up, and she’s walking, and it’s graveyard quiet out here in the suburbs because now is not the time for the distraction of loud music. She is all by herself. Alone in a way that is uniquely perceived in the darkness after midnight. She contends with, she embraces, the psychoses of her imagination, studying their features and postulating their subliminal origins. Slinking accomplices that melt like wax masks under the light of daybreaking sun, rendered immemorable, even childish by mornings and afternoons. But their vividities percolate anew at dusk. I couldn’t begin to guess at what hers look like. I wouldn’t recognize them if I were the one living in her head. Anxiety, in this way, is a purely personal exercise.
Daytime seems lately to be her only way out. Blinking in the brightness like a zombie, running on no sleep. In the past she could flee into the arms of her parents; there was once refuge there. But growing up means noticing the chinks in the armor. Parents become people. And people aren’t mythical.
What she hasn’t yet realized, what it has taken a person of my age decades of quarrel with nighttime terrors to come to terms with, is this: in life, there would be no propulsion, no momentum, without the darkness at the edge of things. The inscrutable night, shading what in daytime is familiar, feeding the panicked mind feeds. It gorges itself until the stomach is hot and curdled, and the heart pounds into place each railroad spike, one beat at a time, and then you’re strapped to the deck and the iron wheels are careening along the tracks, through the netherworld in an unbreakable acceleration.
But that’s your fuel, Em. And when you read this, know that I’m sorry. For what it’s worth, this is turning out very different than how I’d imagined it.
And, to my daughter: I’ve watched you exhaust yourself trying to keep all of your spinning plates up in the air, trying, as you’ve said, to “hold this family together.” Sometimes you just don’t have the strength. Sometimes you just have to lay your head down, and let the panic take you where it wants you to go.
But it’s a lonely ride.
She escapes home from another day. Walking towards another crushing night alone. She doesn’t take the quickest route.
She opens the door and is greeted, as she endlessly is, by no one. Prickers dance up her spine to be in this place, this place where she cannot relax. Her entrance is quiet enough that she can hear it when her uncle’s empty bottle falls out of bed and rolls across the floor upstairs. She feels the helium of a scream swell in her lungs. She drags that heap of a dog out of the house for a walk.
She cranks the volume up as high as it will go. She loves the feeling of the friction spikes of the knob, the way it pulls the skin of her thumb taut when she can’t turn it up any More. The way she pushes into it, hoping her flesh will slide away like the peel of an overripe fruit. Everything they make nowadays is so smooth, with such unnaturally rounded, polished edges.
The music pummels her eardrums. Nothing has her attention. Too loud for anything to compete. The world darts out of her way. The dog is barely keeping up…
The ink went blotchy, and then all of a sudden it stopped. He twirled the tip of his pen across the margin at the top of the page. He wetted its point with his tongue, but still nothing. Had that ever worked, for anyone? He thought about where he’d first learned of that trick. It had always just sort of been there, up there in his head. Spit had never, ever restarted a dead pen, but there it was, a thought triggered like an instinct, and there was the metallic taste in his mouth that he couldn’t swallow away. There were plenty of things like that, stored in the back catalogs of his brain. Things which, despite their uselessness, he couldn’t bear to part with. Because they were him, and he was inseparable from them. And he won’t be thrown away.
This was his last pen. He doubted there were others in the house. Nobody used them anymore. How long had it been since he’d noticed one in a store?
Still, it felt right, to scribble his first draft on paper. That was the way he’d always done it, though it had been years since he’d last tried. An empty screen, the insistent regularity of a flashing cursor, they made for a daunting start from nothing. A gap too wide to narrow a stream of consciousness through. So, he wrote first. A garbled, scratchy mess, and then condensed it on the keyboard. But his last pen was twenty years old, and now it had run out. He stood up and grabbed his keys and left. That’s what brought everything down.
He found a three pack, eventually, at the third convenience store he tried. He imagined a cashier, staring at him as he handed her his purchase to scan. She’d have forgotten that the store still sold these, that people still used them. He imagined how her pulse would weaken when he asked if the store accepted cash.
But things didn’t work like that anymore. He walked out, and he shooed away the text showing his total and thanking him for his purchase.
He got back in his car to drive home, completing the portrait of anachronism that was his life. He pulled out onto the street, pleased to watch the slipstream regularity of traffic compress into a cautious bubble around an ape with his foot on a gas pedal.
There she was, in his bedroom, when he got back. The first thing he thought was, what time is it, is she supposed to be home from school?
The first thing he said was “What are you doing in my room?” (too defensive) and the first thing she said back was “This is my brother’s room.” Quite a spiky retort given how long it had been since that had been true.
She’d read it all by that point. Not just the streamlined, edited text on the screen. She’d sat down in his chair and sifted through the papers with his rantings and his crossouts. Poured over some of the rougher, more insensitive language he’d thought up and then softened.
It was poetic, how at this point, once he’d spit it all out and come to terms with the unrecognizable shape it had taken, before the therapeutic value in writing it had made itself clear to him (let alone anyone he might show it to), now that he’d been barraged by second and third and fourth thoughts to bury the thing in his hard drive and burn the drafts, that she’d see everything, exposed in its rawest form. All in a thirty minute trip to the store.
“Uh, what the hell is this?” she demanded, and despite everything it almost made him smile, how well he felt he’d captured her voice in that moment. He was a writer, he was a revealer of truths, and he’d said some nasty things, but they were truths, he’d insist. Even he could imagine how she’d scoff at a statement like that. But she must have heard his car pull into the driveway. Must have heard him open the front door, and waited for him in here.
“It’s,” he fumbled. No artist likes to see their work accurately categorized. “Well, it’s fiction–”
She wasn’t prepared to wait. “I don’t keep a diary,” she lied. Her cannonball glare knocked him backwards.
“I know you don’t–”
“I wouldn’t say any of this.” Her primary concern, revealed. Mischaracterization.
“It’s not supposed to be–”
“What is it supposed to be, grandpa?”
Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned. Sometimes there is no value in being original. Sometimes there is no better way to put things. These thoughts streaked through his mind like airplanes preparing to drop futile payloads of water over an inferno.
“I’m sorry Aema. I didn’t want you to see this.” But was that really true?
“Yeah, no shit grandpa.”
A long moment hung between them.
“I didn’t want your mom to see it eith–”
“It’s just really creepy grandpa,” she darted away from the possible topic of her mother.
He sat down on the twin bed along the far wall, hoping to appear broken and pathetic enough that some of her seething anger might steam away into pity. He was surprised that she hadn’t run out on him by now.
“You could have written about, like, anything else. You could have invented a different family to take a shit on. You could have made them up. But instead, you made me sound like some shitty little, like, pathetic, orphan or whatever. I mean, literally…”
Her words were beginning to lose their momentum. How could he explain to her that he had invented a different family, that he had made them up? That it wasn’t easy to talk about these things, that sometimes it was impossible to have a conversation with someone when you couldn’t invent their replies, couldn’t organize their contrasting points of view?
He sat, trapped. She had all the fuel in the world to burn. With fully justifiable indignation she could throw him onto her pyre and watch him writhe for as long as she wanted.
“You don’t know me as well as you think you do.”
He peered into her mind, sorted through all the things he’d written that should have made her furious. Not the things he’d gotten wrong about her, but all those he’d gotten right. He imagined describing the way her lips pursed, like the leather of an old, cracked belt.
“I know that Walkman you carry with you everywhere you go ran out of batteries months ago.”
It was unnecessary for him to go there, to change the subject, to dagger her belly. She was just a teenager. He knew that by now.
Instead, he could have told her that it had once belonged to him. That he’d pulled it out of a box in his attic after his wife died. That he’d driven to a dozen stores looking for anywhere that still sold AA batteries, and when he found the last pack in existence he slid in a tape he’d shoplifted when he was her age. When his hatred of the world had bubbled out from the magma in his core, as hers was doing now. That he’d given it two years ago to her older brother, who’d tinkered with it, who’d held it gently like an antique, but never reveled in it, never lost himself in the music the way his grandfather had and ended up leaving it behind when he shipped off on enlistment. That she carried around a useless carcass because it reminded her of someone who’d never really liked it anyways.
He knew her as well as he’d tried to know her. He’d never given her an opportunity to surprise him with who she was.
In his head, at this moment, he’d broken her. The gushing memories of her brother would breach her levies, and she would tear up, and fall into his arms, and he would hold onto her tiny body as it sobbed like a sponge wringing out over a sink.
Not a chance.
“Fuck you grandpa.”
She hurled the pronoun at him like a piece of trash tossed out of an open window on the highway. As carelessly as littering. It fluttered in all directions in the wind.
And then she was gone.
For the next few weeks, not much changed.
Her mom continued to spend most of her time at work. Her uncle continued to hole up in her old room and drink himself to sleep before dinnertime. Her grandfather maintained his wary distance, unsure if time would thaw or solidify their icy separation. To his great fault, he would not be the first to extend the warmth of a hand.
She stopped taking the Walkman with her when she left the house. It wasn’t something anyone would have noticed.
She crept into the silent house, listening for its occupants. None revealed themselves. She walked down the hallway, eyes peering left, but her brother’s old room was mercifullyempty. She slunk down the stairs to the basement.
There was her old dog, lying on a pile of laundry on her bed, waiting for her. The only one who waited for her.
Her eyes welled at the sight of him, dumb and greying, lazy and singularly loyal. She couldn’t keep herself contained. She burst like a cartridge of ink, spraying herself all over the room. She sobbed into him, and he held her, being so effortlessly a dog. Unable to speak her language, and yet understanding something incomprehensible. He gave her an endless amount of his time. His fur became wet as she smothered him.
This dog had raised her. She had grown up, and he had grown old. Soon he would die, and leave her entirely alone. She deflated herself over his body.
The two inhaled, synchronous. This dog had raised her, and soon he would die. She was his child, and he was her own. In that moment she began to understand how sometimes a thing can be both itself and its opposite.
She inched cautiously, reluctantly towards womanhood.
She heard her grandfather’s car door close in the driveway. Did he know what time it was? Did his empty schedule keep hours, or dates? He would not expect her to be home at this time. He would not expect her to want to talk. He would not expect her to want to listen. An adult world of nuance, of flaw, revealed its pockmarked, oily face.
She stood up. She looked around for her coat. Her dog remained where he was. He’d wait, in case things didn’t go well, in case she needed him again.
She toed up the stairs. She met her grandfather at the front door.