I remember this prelude as if I watched the scene unfold with my eyes floating high above my body, only it’s no longer my body in this memory—it belongs to a distant girl-twin. A fibrous cord of nerve-endings tethers my consciousness to her skin and bones, but the connection is weak; her sensations are petty aftershocks by the time they reach me.
My girl-twin is stretched out on the oversized sofa against her mother, a young woman with tired blue eyes and a charming cleft in her chin. She rests her cheek on the girl’s shoulder and reads aloud from a dog-eared book while Moonlighting blares from the old tube television at the far end of the room. They’re wrapped up tight together inside a thrift-store Afghan like invalids sweating out a fever. The little girl’s knobby knees and skinny calves fidget against her mother’s pajama legs. Even from where I hover up among the ceiling cobwebs, I can tell that the whole setup is out of the ordinary, that my other self feels uncomfortably warm. She won’t complain, though. Her mother never lets her stay up this late. She can’t believe her good luck.
She doesn’t wonder why it’s suddenly okay to watch grownup television on a school night—that it might have something to do with Z’s prolonged absence, or that the box of instant mashed potatoes they’ve eaten for three consecutive dinners has finally run out, or that her mother has been abandoned in a bad neighborhood without family or friends nearby to check on her—that her mother is untethered from any anchor that might keep her from floating away. Instead, the little girl simply assumes that she’s getting away with something. If she speaks, she might break the spell and be sent to bed.
Although being read to is a rare treat, my girl-twin is mostly interested in Moonlighting, and particularly in Cybill Shepherd’s wardrobe. It’s all sequins and blouses of decanted pastel liquid. Bruce Willis has a great smile and a generous sense of humor; he grins and shakes his head at Cybill as if everything she says is captivating. The little girl tries and fails to imagine Z’s eyes crinkling like that at her mother’s jokes. I feel sorry for them both. Before I register what’s happening, I’m pulling myself hand over fist, down the tether and back into my host, into me.
(The Terrifying Sublime)
She grips me tighter than usual with her free arm. The other one is trapped somewhere within the Afghan’s woolen coils. My blanketed knees prop the book up for her to read over my shoulder. I don’t yet suspect that anything is wrong.
Our sofa is that homely shade of orange-brown ubiquitous to the late 70s, the upholstery rough and comforting beneath my heels. I kick absently at it, enjoying the feeling of friction. You could strike a match on the weave of this old sofa. You could skin a knee on it.
Her arms suddenly stiffen around me; I feel her abdomen tense against my back. She hears something outside. Now I hear it, too. The fear that follows is instant and overwhelming.
Across the room, Cybill and Bruce continue to circle each other like exotic birds, but their chirping cannot drown out the blood pounding in my ears. All of my focus shifts to the picture window beside us.
She reaches toward the drapes to unveil us, neat and helpless, on full display for whatever waits on the other side. I am unable to free myself from the confines of the Afghan, unable to squeak out in protest, unable even to breathe. All I can do is peer outward from the confines of my body as she hooks a finger inside the sash and pulls.
Oh, it’s much worse than I feared. Behind the curtain, a face presses hard against the dirty pane of glass, staring in at us with unfocused eyes tinted bluish from the television’s light. Its slack grimace reminds me of the decapitated soldier I once saw in my uncle Jack’s Time-Life photo book of World War II.
Mom leaps up, tugging the blanket along with her. It unravels around me until I flop onto the sofa’s scratchy upholstery, breathless and terrified. I bury my face between the flattened cushions as she yanks the drapes shut and runs for the telephone.
Laughter from outside, more than one young, male voice, the susurration of bodies pressing through our unpruned Boxwood shrubs, down the street, sneakers on pavement, silence.
It’s over. I lay motionless, catching my breath, waiting for my heartbeat to settle. The sofa’s familiar, musty smell grounds me instantly, as it always has.
Ice crunched underfoot the night that Mom and Z moved us from Ohio to Missouri; our noses dripped relentlessly and Z’s soda developed a frozen skin on top while he loaded boxes into the truck. Even so, I had refused to put on my coat, refused to climb into the cab and settle against the child-sized hump between the driver’s seat and the passenger’s seat where the heater blasted a cushion of hot condensation. In protest, I flung myself onto the sofa and dug my fingers into its grimy creases. “I hate St. Louis!” I’d screamed at the pair of them. Mom and Z laughed and carried the whole thing out to the truck with me still flailing atop it.
Before long, I’d worn myself out. Unwilling to capitulate, I lay there panting, staring up at the stars. In my memory, they were all impossible colors twinkling furiously through the veil of my tears. In my memory, the sky’s hugeness was suddenly quantifiable. I floated upward from myself to where it was possible to count the layers of atmosphere separating my gravity-bound fingertips from the heavens. The problem wasn’t the number of layers, but the spaces in-between. Like sponges, they wicked away all bad feeling, but before long, everything else had to follow.
(Feeling for the Beauty and the Dignity of Human Nature: Sympathy, Complaisance, Honor, and Shame)
When the police arrive, my mother puts me to bed in her and Z’s sparse, dust-smelling room with the lights off. She runs a damp hand over my forehead, shakily whispering into the empty air that there’s nothing to be afraid of, that the terrible thing I saw was just a neighborhood kid playing a prank on us. I say nothing. I don’t have vocabulary for the things I feel.
She leaves me there, alone. The thick rope of nerve endings rests coiled inside my body, weighing me down. I lay on my back in the dark and count to a hundred before creeping back out to the sofa, where I plant my knees in its rough cushions and pull back the drapes.
Outside, she sits smoking on the stoop next to the police officer who’s been sent to guard our house until the sun rises—another woman, only taller and solid-looking. My mother is only 24 years old. 24 will seem very old to me until I am grown, but at that moment I have some sense that she is, in many ways, still a child herself.
This is when my memory-perspective begins to tether out again with an intensity that blurs my ability to separate reconstruction from reality. My girl-twin’s body recedes as I float over our ugly old sofa, through the windowpane that’s still smudged from the intruder’s nose and saliva. I come to a stop high above where light from the street lamp orbits the two women: my mother, adrift, loosely tethered to the policewoman, a temporary anchor. I peer down at them for a long time with a queer little lump in my throat. They are still passing the cigarette back and forth when I finally return to my body, and then to bed.