"What happened to it?" you asked while you both squatted over the thing.\n\n"Maybe some animal got it," he said.\n\n"Touch it," you said, because you had learned to live vicariously through boys, who would do anything.\n\nHe touched it, but not in a way to poke and examine. Instead, he stroked the cats fur with his fingers, as though soothing it into sleep.\n\nYou wondered who might soothe you into such a sleep.\n\n[[Everyone talked.]]\n[[You got sick.]]
Many years went by, and you lived with the unflappable assurance of your own goodness. You got married, you had children, you read //Moby-Dick//. \n\nAnd then something happens. You run into Lem. Your car breaks down along some rural route, and he is the driver of the tow-truck that comes to your rescue.\n\n"You," he says.\n\nYou recognize him, and you try to illustrate the moral life you've lived by straightening your stature. But he is not cowed like he should be. \n\nInstead, he says, "You should be shamed."\n\n"Ashamed of what?"\n\n"It was you," he says. "You wanted those dead things. You liked em. It was your sickness what demanded em. I was just a fetcher. You told me what to fetch. Then you blamed me for it."\n\nAnd you know that he is right. And you know that it is right when he leaves you there by the side of the road without fixing your car.\n\nYou are not the person you thought you were.\n\n[[The end.]]\n
You want to go on a boat, so you find a cruise ship and book passage on it. You don't want to know exactly what the route is, because you want to be surprised wherever you end up. During the days, you to and fro on the ship--and you particularly like watching the wake, which is like the watery spine of your journey. \n\nMost of the travelers on the boat are significantly older than you are. But there is a magician, who performs shows nightly. He does card tricks for you, so you sleep with him. \n\nMaybe you are someone who beds magicians.\n\nBut magicians without cards are just like financiers.\n\n[[Alaska.]]\n[[The magician.]]\n
"Did you ever kiss a girl?" you asked Lem.\n\n"Nah."\n\n"Do you want to?"\n\n"I guess."\n\n"Do you want to put Chapstick on first?"\n\n"Okay."\n\nSo you took the little plastic tube out of your pocket, and you handed it to him. He smeared it around his lips, and then you smeared it around yours. The menthol smell made you think of sick rooms and bedtimes.\n\n"Are you ready?" you asked.\n\n[[You kissed him.]]\n
Then he died. It was just last year, in a car accident. He seemed content with his life up until the very end of it--but who knows. You could never really read him. \n\nAnd now this thing about the skulls, and you begin to think about all those things close to you that have been lost--all those aspects of your past that are buried. \n\nYou know where your father is, on a hillside in the Fresh Lawn Cemetery. But you decide it's time to see your mother again. So you go looking for her.\n\n[[Spain.]]\n[[Cemetery.]]\n
You are about to reveal yourself to her and grant her forgiveness (since everyone, even the most despicable people, deserve a little forgiveness), when your mother looks toward the door of the tavern and says, "There she is now."\n\nIn walks a girl of thirteen. The same age you were when your mother left.\n\nThe girl looks like you. When your mother introduces you, the girl scowls. \n\nYou understand. You say goodbye to them and watch them walk away. \n\nMaybe you'll stay in Spain for a while.\n\n[[The end.]]\n
Then, in Lima, Peru, you meet another traveler--a woman who tells you she has been going around the world nonstop for eight years. \n\n"What are you looking for?" you ask, because you want to know if it's the same thing you're looking for.\n\n"I'm not sure," says the woman. "But I have a nagging feeling that I passed it a while ago without noticing."\n\nThe thought haunts you. You always saw your journey as spatial. You imagined there was a place in the world that would house the answers. But now you wonder if your travel is actual temporal--and, if that's the case, maybe your constant movement forward is the wrong direction altogether. But how to go back?\n\nSo you give it all up. You make a home in Lima and start creating crafts out of beads.\n\n[[The end.]]\n
So now you have something to prove to him. You drive in your indestructible way downtown where they have the tall buildings. You climb to the top of one, and you leap off. The wind against your face as you fall--you've never felt anything like it. \n\nWhen you land, it's like a dream, or like diving into the water. You pop back up.\n\n"See?" you say to no one in particular.\n\nBut then you look back and find your body lying there all deflated and broken on the sidewalk. \n\nYou make your way back home by means not entirely earthly, and you wish you could talk to your husband to tell him that despite all appearances, you are still immortal and still saintly.\n\n[[The end.]]\n
In fact, he treats little Aldo so badly that the boy begins to plot his revenge. He waits for the right opportunity to present itself, and finally the right opportunity does. It's Lucy, your father's daughter, who is just Aldo's age. \n\nThe boy begins dating Lucy, slowly turning Lucy against her father, until one day Lucy says, "Leave me alone, Dad, or I'll leave this house and never come back!"\n\nShe's just waiting for him to push his luck. You can see it in her eyes, she wants to go. \n\nHe relents. He lets the two do whatever they want. \n\nBut here's the thing: Lucy leaves anyway. She runs away with Aldo. You don't know where they are now.\n\nYou visit your father. He is a very sad man. You sit on the porch together and look at the overgrown lawn. \n\nYou wonder, in the secret part of your mind, where your Aldo is and what's taking him so long to find you.\n\n[[The end.]]\n
Then you do something funny. You are even surprised at yourself. You turn around, and you kiss the headstone right on the sunken ridges of his name: Lemuel. \n\nThe stone is cold and unyielding. It is awkward and uncomfortable. But, you reason, so was your last kiss with Lem. And your last kiss was a beginning of things.\n\nSo after you kiss the headstone, you stand and look around.\n\nYou wait to see what new beginning your kiss has brought into existence.\n\n[[The end.]]\n
So cats and spines and sickness all go together in your mind.\n\nAnd once, when you are hospitalized with pneumonia, there's a girl in the bed beside you. She's maybe ten years old, and she's being treated for some wasting ailment. Her parents visit her in the daytimes, but at night she's alone, and you talk to her.\n\nShe tells you how she got sick in the first place. She and a neighborhood boy were walking in the woods and came across a dead woodchuck. He touched it while she watched. By all rights, he's the one who should be sick, but she's the one in the hospital. Anyway, he is a strange kid and doesn't have many friends.\n\nYou feel a little sick to your stomach as you ask the question:\n\n"What was his name?"\n\nShe says, "Lem."\n\n[[You return to your gradeschool.]]\n[[Lem comes back.]]\n
"Do you believe in heaven?" you asked Lem.\n\n"I don't know," he said. "I guess so."\n\nYou made him uncomfortable with your talk of holy things. You could see that. Still, you pressed him, because you wanted to see what he looked like when he cracked.\n\n"Do you think the cat and the squirrel went there?"\n\n"They're just animals."\n\n"Do you think we're just animals too?"\n\n"Come on," he said. "Let's go back."\n\n[[Rabbit.]]\n
You got sick.\n\nMaybe it was from the dead cat, or maybe it wasn't. You were kept out of school for two weeks with a dangerous fever. Most of the time you were unconscious. You wish now you could remember the dreams you had during that time--you're sure they must be marvelous.\n\nWhen you went back to school, you were weaker.\n\nThe other kids looked sideways at you. They knew you had almost died, and now they didn't know what to say to someone who had gone on such a journey.\n\n[[Something was wrong with you.]]\n[[You were excluded.]]\n
One night, while you lie naked in bed next to him, you say, "I know another magician. Except instead of cards, he does tricks with numbers. He can do anything with them, but he's also very loyal to them."\n\n"Your boyfriend?"\n\n"Yes. Do you mind that I have one?"\n\n"Not at all. People are one thing on the mainland and something else entirely at sea. Look!"\n\nHe reaches out and pulls a quarter from behind your ear. \n\n"What are you on the mainland?" you ask. "An insurance salesman?"\n\n[[Pirates.]]\n[[Chiropractor.]]\n
But now you read about spines in //Moby-Dick//, and you think about the beginning of things and how ends make new beginnings. \n\nThat night, when you make dinner, you put something special in Lem's mashed potatoes. You watch as he eats them, and when he pushes back from the table and grabs at his throat, which is closing up, you say, "I'm sorry."\n\nHe has no chance to respond to you, because he cannot speak.\n\nAfterward, you sit down next to his body, and you puppet the words he could have spoken if he had had a voice.\n\n"It's okay," you say to yourself. "You did enough. We loved the world together. Now we can love it apart. And maybe it'll be a different kind of love."\n\nYou stay with him all night. In the morning, you walk out the front door and wonder what to do next.\n\n[[The end.]]\n
In the morning, you sneak away without waking him up. He is very sensitive about his sleep patterns. He logs them in a book in order to be the most efficient sleeper he can be. He wears a piece of tape across the bridge of his nose that is supposed to help his slumber--but this seems mostly mystical to you.\n\nSo you do not wake him.\n\nHe is a man generous to your curious nature, so you try to be generous to his. \n\n[[Find a boat.]]\n
It was strange, the sensation of his lips against yours. Arbitrary, like two salmon fish brushing against each other in a stream.\n\nAfter a while, you said, "People are afraid of you a little."\n\n"Are you afraid?" he asked.\n\n"I don't know. Do you think the cat's still there?"\n\n"It's not," he said. "I buried it."\n\n"You did? Where?"\n\n"Here."\n\nHe patted the ground beneath where the two of you had been kissing. You noticed for the first time that the soil was loose.\n\nAnd so some things begin where other things end. And so you grew up fearing many things, but death was not among them.\n\n[[Now, you go look for Lem.]]\n[[You and Lem together.]]\n
After twenty years together, you now look at him and say, "I can't do it anymore. I'm too much with you. I can't see anything else."\n\n"Me too," he says. \n\n"But I don't know how to stop being with you."\n\n"Me neither," he says.\n\n"How did we get here?" you ask.\n\n"I don't know."\n\nYou decide, the both of you, that somehow you missed out on certain fundamental opportunities, and that there's no way of going backward. You also agree that you've done all you can with who you are right now.\n\nSo you split a bottle of prescription pills. You swallow one half, and he swallows the other. Then you go out into the backyard, sit next to each other in the shade of the bushes at the perimeter, and wait.\n\n[[The end.]]\n
Are you some kind of hydra? Were you meant to be one of those mythical creatures who may lose one head and have another sprout in its place? Was this what being a woman meant? Sloughing off one life and generating another, time after time? \n\nThere was, it seemed to you, an immortality in it. You had lives to spare. So many that you could afford staining white cotton with all the extras. \n\n[[Like beheaded saints.]]\n[[The reincarnation of the body.]]
But the brutal treatment has the intended effect. Little Aldo relents. He says, one day, to your father, "I don't want to be Aldo anymore. I'll just be Bud again. Forget the Aldo."\n\n"You won't take any girls away from their husbands or fathers?"\n\n"No, I swear. It's not worth it. I'll be anyone else. Aldos are no good."\n\nYour father smiles and takes the boy under his arm. \n\nThen he takes Bud and introduces him to his daughter Lucy, your half-sister. The two fall immediately and madly in love.\n\nMany years later, you go to their wedding, which takes place on the lawn of a mansion by a lake. You too have changed your name from Clara to Meryl, thinking that might lead you to something new. \n\nBut you're still waiting.\n\n[[The end.]]\n
One day your biological mother comes to visit. You have not seen her for thirty years. She is terribly sorry. She is regretful beyond words. She asks if you'll forgive her.\n\nYou shrug.\n\n"You don't have to be sorry," you say. "We always regrow, don't we?"\n\nShe says yes. She says she feels like she's grown into a new person.\n\n"Me too," you say.\n\n"Is that why you're here?" she asks.\n\n"//Why// isn't the right question," you say. "The right question is //what now//?"\n\nYour mother stays with you for the rest of the afternoon. She wants to help you in the garden. You and she work together, on your knees, to plant seeds.\n\n[[The end.]]\n
One day, Louis says, "How's it going?"\n\nYou say, "I have good news. You and me, we were always together."\n\n"Were we?"\n\n"That's right. In 1910, you were an English gentleman, and I was the common street whore you fell in love with. In the nineteenth century, you were minor royalty, and I was a thieving waif you fell in love with. During the renaissance, you were a philosopher, and I was the grubby errand runner you fell in love with. I was a boy, but you fell in love with me anyway."\n\n"That's remarkable," he says. "What does it prove?"\n\n"I think," you say, "it shows that sometimes we are already in exactly the place we thought we were looking for."\n\n[[The end.]]\n
So you became a nun. You took the vows, and you moved into a convent in California with other women. \n\nYours is not the kind of order where you have to wear a habit. Instead, you and your fellow nuns walk around in jeans or modest skirts. You particularly like helping out in the garden. Also, you read a lot. There is a good selection of books in the library.\n\nAlso, there are women you call Mother and women you call Sister, and if one of the Mothers or Sisters dies or leaves, another takes her place. \n\n[[You take up smoking.]]\n[[Your mother comes back.]]\n
And you are reminded of that when you read //Moby-Dick// and discover about the Germans and their deathhead backbones. So you decide to go looking for Lem to see what he has come to in the eighteen years since you knew him last.\n\nYou return to your hometown and ask around, and what you discover is that Lem died of Leukemia--not even recently but a long time ago, in fact only two years after you showed him the dead cat. He was twelve when he died. You suppose he is still twelve, wherever he is.\n\nSo you find out where he is buried and drive to the cemetery.\n\nHis headstone is still in good condition. They make them to last, you suppose. You sit down on the grave and lean your back against it, and you wait. The grass tickles the backs of your legs. \n\n[[You are approached.]]\n[[A new beginning.]]\n
From the altitude of the airplane, the world seems to make more sense. The landscape is portioned out artfully--all the possibilities of life laid out for you in neat maps and clear routes.\n\nYou make a determination to recall that perspective when you land.\n\nBut, as it turns out, a worm's eye view is called that for a reason. You are a poor little worm indeed.\n\n[[The casino.]]\n
You do some research. You discover that the human spinal cord contains thirty-three vertebrae.\n\n"Thirty-three!" you say to Louis. "And this, right here," you say, pointing to your head, "this is just number one. All this, this whole life, is just number one. One thirty-third of the possibilities."\n\n"Do you want me to move out?" says Louis. "Is that it?"\n\n[[You want to try something else.]]\n[[The significance of thirty-three.]]\n
So from that point you grew up in a man's household. There were always televisions on in the background, chattering away. You and our father ate out of cans, or you cooked meals in the microwave that required you to puncture holes in the cellophane on the top. You began to admire how such a Spartan lifestyle could make room in your head for thinking about other things.\n\nYou wondered what must be filling your father's imagination day in and day out. You wondered if he was lonely. But mostly, he lost weight and fell asleep in his recliner.\n\n[[He died.]]\n[[He remarried.]]\n
Louis says, "A vacation might help. Try out some of those different versions of you. Maybe you're a different person in Aruba. Maybe in Aruba, you like cauliflower."\n\n"All right," you say, because it's not a bad idea. "But not Aruba. Someplace else. Where else do you want to go?"\n\n[[Go alone.]]\n[[South Dakota.]]\n
When you showed him, he stuffed his hands in his pockets and kicked the dirt. \n\n"Don't you want to look at it?" you asked.\n\n"Nah."\n\nYou are confused, because you thought that all boys were fond of the grim and the morbid. You wondered if maybe you had done something wrong.\n\n"It's sad," you say.\n\n"I guess."\n\nYou could see the cat's spine, little white nodules like a zipper under its flesh. You wanted to make that observation to someone, but no one seemed interested.\n\n[[Squirrel.]]\n[[Fetal pig.]]\n
Once, going through a doorway into class, you bumped accidentally into another girl and she tumbled to the ground. She collected her things and seemed unhurt, but the next day she was missing from school with a case of pneumonia. \n\nThe rest of the class blamed you, because of your intimacy with death. \n\nDuring recess, you swung on the swings, and the arc of your flight was exhilarating and lonely.\n\n[[Something was wrong with you.]]\n
You got your first period two weeks after she left. \n\nYou knew what it meant. It meant you were not a mother--and neither was she a mother. Not anymore at least. And you both sloughed off those things you were not mothers of.\n\n[[Other things you are not a mother of.]]\n[[You are immortal.]]\n
You dont like how he dismisses you. The next time you come to a bend in the road, you do not turn. The car go straight over the edge and down into a ditch, slamming into the trunk of a tree. \n\nThere is blood in your eyes, but you are conscious. You look over to your husband, who is also conscious. But there is blood coming from his ears and his nose. \n\nYou have trouble breathing, and neither of you can move. You think some part of the car has gone through you, but you're not sure. You can't feel much.\n\nYour husband looks at you.\n\n"Why?" he says.\n\n"We'll see," you say, struggling to speak, "which of us dies first. I bet . . . it'll be you."\n\n[[The end.]]\n
The next day you find him in the casino, and he tells you he met a cocktail waitress named Peggy, and that this cocktail waitress needs him in her life. He says you never needed him at all.\n\nYou might take issue with this, but you can see the inevitability of things.\n\n"You were right," he says. "We have the potential to be all kinds of different people. I never knew who I was before."\n\nYou go outside and sit on a bench with buffalo silhouettes carve into it. This isn't the way you thought it would go. Then again, maybe it makes sense. Just last week you were living a mundane life with a financier who wasn't fond of desserts and kept his house very tidy. This week you are a woman abandoned to the wilds of South Dakota. It occurs to you that as long as the world changes around you, it's like undergoing transformations yourself. Things are relative that way.\n\nThis understanding makes you more attentive to all things--even the cowboys passing in their boots and their wide hats.\n\n[[The end.]]\n
Then your mother comes back, with Aldo. You haven't seen her in twelve years. \n\n"I've missed you," she says.\n\n"I don't even know you."\n\n"I was a bad mother."\n\n"You weren't any mother at all."\n\nYou ask her why she went away.\n\nShe shrugs. "I don't know," she says. "I guess just because it's who I am. I wanted to be my own mistakes. Does that make sense?"\n\nAnd you don't admit it to her, but it does.\n\n[[The end.]]\n
The next day in school, Lem leaned forward in his desk, and said, "There's something else dead today. It's a squirrel."\n\nSo during recess, the two of you went to look at it. It was in the same place the cat had been. And it was cut up in the same way. Flies collected on it.\n\n"I wonder where the cat went," you said.\n\nLem shrugged. Again, he seemed uninterested in the animal, which you thought was odd since he was the one who brought you to see it today.\n\n[[Rabbit.]]\n[[Do you believe in heaven?]]\n
And you do. You commit suicide in his house. You don't bother leaving a note, because it is your plan to come back and haunt him. After your funeral, at which he is sufficiently mournful, you present yourself to him as a specter.\n\n"See," you say. "Go ahead and explain this why don't you."\n\nAt first he is appalled. Then he collects himself. He comes over to you and waves his hand through your body to prove to himself your incorporeality. \n\nThen he says, "First, it's good to see you. Second, I'll be happy to explain it. You are nothing more than a psychological artifact of my brain. I'm hallucinating you in order to reconcile my grief at your loss. It's common."\n\nYou argue with him for a while, but it's no use. You will go on, for the rest of your days, being a product of his imagination.\n\n[[The end.]]\n
But it was only a year before he married again. The new wife's name was Susan, and she was no wicked step-mother at all. She was a nice lady who took you shopping and cooked delicious dinners that made you appreciate, for the first time, tarragon. You got along with her very well, and your father seemed happy--or at least content, which is what you strive for in men.\n\nSusan and your father had another child, so now you have a half-sister named Lucy who was just a toddler when you were graduating from high school.\n\n[[Another loss.]]\n[[Another daughter of your father.]]\n
Except that after three years, you still aren't pregnant, and you suspect he's infertile but he won't let a doctor look at him because that's the kind of man he is: determined to be well. So you do what makes sense to you. You have a brief affair with another man who smells nice but you don't really care to spend time with, and the result of that affair is a child, a girl, who Benjamin believes is his.\n\n"See," he says. "I told you it would all work out."\n\nYes, it all works out. Except that Benjamin, who acts as such a good father to his daughter, is not really and truly her father. Except that you, who are really and truly her mother, still do not feel very maternal--and you sometimes look at her, sitting there in the middle of the living room floor, wrapped in a towel and fresh from the bath, and you feel suspicion and distrust. And you wonder what happened, what went wrong along the way, or maybe everything just got started on the wrong track somewhere way back in the past. The wrong vertebra turned into the skull you carry around now.\n\n[[You don't feel right.]]\n[[Your mother again.]]\n
"Not me," he says. "Just you. Try out your other lives. I'll be here when you get back. I can make myself sloppy joes. You make them once, and they last two weeks!"\n\nYes, you think, you would like to try a version of yourself without Louis and his tidy life. So decide to take him up on his offer. He is a generous man, whatever else you might say about him, so before you go, you write him a series of ten letters. You tell him you aren't sure where you might end up, or if you'll be able to get to a mailbox, so he should open one letter every week to hear from you.\n\nHe likes the idea. "We'll save on postage!"\n\n[[Find a boat.]]\n[[Leaving before dawn.]]\n
South Dakota is filled with things shaped like buffaloes. It is also filled with casinos. You get into a big argument on the very first night, because Louis tries to explain to you that betting five dollars on both red and black in roulette doesn't make any sense. \n\n"I always win," you say.\n\n"You always lose," he says.\n\n"You're looking at it the wrong way."\n\n"There's no //way// of looking at it. It's just the way the game works."\n\nYou go to bed alone that night, and he stays at the tables until very late.\n\n[[He loses.]]\n[[He wins.]]\n
As it turns out, he's a chiropractor--which, he says, is another kind of prestidigitation. You decide to take him back home and introduce him to your boyfriend Louis. \n\nThe two get along famously. It's like they were meant to find each other. They talk about numbers and the bones of the body as though such scientific facts were magical. And who knows--maybe they are. Maybe you just don't have the eyes to see it.\n\nThey become such a good pair that they don't really need you anymore. So you leave again to find another boat. You just hope that you don't spend your life as a functionary to bring men together.\n\n[[The end.]]\n
The teacher's adulation became your curse. \n\n"Whoa," said some of the boys when they saw you biting your nails. "You better save those hands for medical school."\n\nSome boys, who might have conceivably been your boyfriends had you not shown such facility for cutting into organic material, said, "Hands that touch fetal pig guts will never touch me."\n\n"//You// touched fetal pig guts," you explained to them.\n\nBut teenaged boys are difficult. Reason is not their primary drive.\n\n[[You went to medical school.]]\n
"I think it's you," you say.\n\n"Me?"\n\n"I think I'm the person I'm supposed to be. I'm the right number. But you, you're off. That's what was confusing me."\n\n"You're cracked," he says. \n\nBut it turns out you're right. Maybe your saying it caused him to rethink things, because he comes home a month later and says he's leaving you for a man. \n\n"I'm happy for you," you say, because it's true. "How's his spine?"\n\n[[The end.]]\n
This Aldo explains to you that Aldos are a unique and somewhat dangerous species of man. They are known for stealing women and girls away from those who love them. He himself, he tells you, has stolen--he closes his eyes and counts on his fingertips--eight women. \n\nYou appreciate his candor and ask him if he feels bad about the things he's done.\n\n"No," he explains. "If I were a Barry, I would feel bad. But I'm an Aldo."\n\nYou ask him then what he knows about Claras.\n\n"That's you?"\n\n"Uh-huh."\n\n"Well," he says, "Claras are tricky. They go on flights of fancy. They could be anything. Me, I stay away from them."\n\nThe next day, you step out of your house to go to work and realize that you don't mind being a Clara.\n\n[[The end.]]\n
So when you get out of the hospital, you go back to your grade school and tell him you are trying to track down a boy you used to know. The woman you talk to is very nice. She has an archive of yearbooks going back fifty years. She hands you the one from your year. You find your picture easily. There were not that many students in your class. \n\nBut there is no Lem to be found. None at all.\n\nYou set the yearbook on the table and walk out of the building, carrying Lem with you in one of the hidden pockets of your brain.\n\n[[The end.]]\n
Now, though, Lucy is thirteen, and you get some distressing news from your father. Susan is seeking a divorce. There is another man. His name is Aldo.\n\n"The same Aldo?" you ask.\n\n"No," he says. "A different one."\n\n"What are the chances?" you say. "You've got a real Aldo problem."\n\n"You're telling me."\n\n"Does he roll his own cigarettes?"\n\n"He's an airline pilot."\n\n"Are you okay, Dad?"\n\n"I'll live."\n\n[[Lucy.]]\n[[A new Aldo.]]\n
The first thing you do is have children together. You don't stop at one or two. You and Benjamin have five children. Then you have one more for good measure. Four girls and two boys. You both work very hard to nurture them into full grown adults. You are pleased, because you think about yourself in relation to your mother and find yourself ennobled by the comparison. \n\nYou are producing. You are a mother to the world. You are developing all those miniature skulls in your spine. \n\n[[Your children's children.]]\n[[What Benjamin doesn't know.]]\n
"Do you love him?" he asks.\n\n"Yes."\n\n"Do you love me?" he asks.\n\n"Yes."\n\n"Then," he says, "do both."\n\nYou ask him what he means.\n\n"I mean keep seeing us both, like you've been doing. It hasn't hurt anyone, right? Jealousy's overrated. Anyway, you're a little too much for me to handle on my own."\n\nYou kiss him. "You're a remarkable man."\n\n"A five and a thirty-three. That sounds all right. Just stay away from the elevens. Those guys are bad business."\n\n[[The end.]]\n
You want him to appreciate all the uncalculatable beauty of the world. You make it your mission to show him the things he's been missing. You take him to art museums and teach him to sigh in front of paintings. You play operas for him and show him how his eyes should well with tears. You show him the naked curves of your body and tell him to be savage.\n\nBut he just explains to you that all your curves are there for mundane reasons. Your butt, apparently, is necessary for the procedures of walking upright. \n\n"I'm going to do something drastic!" you say.\n\n[[Something drastic.]]\n[[Something not so drastic.]]\n
Now you spend your time reading books like //Moby-Dick// and listening to children playing in the park across the street from where you live. \n\nBut one day a body comes across your table that you recognize. At first you aren't sure, but then you check the records. His name is Lemuel Wilson. Lem.\n\nHe was found collapsed on the ground on the steps in front of an art museum. Cause of death is for you to determine, but there are no outward injuries. A mystery. Well, you think, he always was a strange boy.\n\n[[You stroke his hair.]]\n[[You lie next to him.]]
You and Louis are in Rhode Island for two days before someone tries to run Louis over with a truck. But he jumps out of the way at the last second.\n\n"Well," you say, "you're not exactly a murder victim, but close!"\n\n"Are we done with this vacation yet?"\n\n"But what am I? All these places, and I'm still just Clara."\n\n"Look," he says and puts an arm over your shoulders. "Maybe you're different. Maybe in your case you don't change based on where you are. Maybe the places where you are change because of you. Maybe when we landed, this place between Rhode Island with Clara. You want proof? Look at me. Louis with Clara. Transformed."\n\nThen he kisses you.\n\n[[The end.]]\n
It was the beginning of something gone wrong in you. Doctors could never identify it. You got sick a lot. In college, you had to retake classes. At your job, you used up all your sick days and vacation days on being ill. \n\nBut you always recovered. You always came back. You had more lives than a cat, some people said.\n\n[[You get married.]]\n[[Pneumonia.]]\n
Soon the pills you took before you came here start to take effect. You feel crampy, but also just tired. You scoot down and lie on your side atop Lem. You wonder if you should have left a note, but it's hard to explain. The truth is that your life is just fine, except that nothing in it has ever been so romantic as the weird boy who aligned sex and death in your brain eighteen years before. \n\nWhile you lie there, waiting, a stray cat approaches and sniffs your face. It is a tuxedo cat, dressed up for the occasion of your death. You reach out your right arm, grown very heavy, and stroke the cat all the way from its head to its tail. \n\nIt likes you, and it sits down to wait with you, and its eyes are full of curiosity and unfearfulness. \n\n[[The end.]]\n
Now you are an adult, and you spend your time reading //Moby-Dick// and tending to your husband and child. You sometimes think about Lem, but not much.\n\nThen one day you hear a loud noise in the front yard of your home. A gunshot. What you find on your lawn is the body of a man who you recognize as Lem. From his clothes, his hair, the dirt on his skin, you can tell he has led a difficult life. \n\nThere is a large crater in the back of his head, and it leaks out onto your lawn. And you begin to wonder, as your toddler ambles across the lawn toward you and the corpse, if maybe you are not the person you thought you were, if maybe you are the one who, ultimately, brought this man here. \n\nAfter all, he is his own final offering.\n\n[[The end.]]\n
You wait, and you have short, clipped conversations with the bartender whose English is scant. \n\nThen one day a man walks in whom you recognize. He orders a drink and sits at one of the tables outside facing the port. While he drinks, he looks wistfully at the sunset and rolls himself a cigarette.\n\nYou, who have been raised by a man for fifteen years, march up to the table, pull out a chair, and sit down across from him.\n\n"Yes?" he asks politely.\n\n"Aldo," you say.\n\nHe tells you he doesn't know where your mother is. She left almost a year ago with another man.\n\n"That's appropriate," you say.\n\n"Why? Oh, because she left your father for me?" He shrugs. "Things go until they stop going. You mourn for things you don't have, and you lose sight of what you do."\n\n[[This seems reasonable.]]\n[[You disagree.]]\n
You never entirely get yourself quit of Lem. In junior high, he was your duty and obligation. He had no other friends. In high school, he became your boyfriend because no one else would go out with you. You saw that these things functioned as circles. Because you were associated with him, you could not associate with anyone else, and so you became further associated with him.\n\nAfter many years, you and Lem got married. There was very little of your life that you didn't see through his eyes, and vice versa.\n\n[[You make dinner.]]\n[[You make a mutual decision.]]\n
You became reckless, because you knew that women regenerate themselves. You grew into adulthood and wrecked yourself repeatedly on the craggy shores of men. You got married early and then got divorced. You became, for a while, an amphetamine addict, and you stay awake sometimes for three days in a row. \n\nWhen that got old, you settled down into more mundane destructions. You met a man and married him, and the two of you bought a house in the suburbs. And that, too, was a kind of dying.\n\nAnd now you read //Moby-Dick//, and you are reminded of all those little deaths still inside you. You do not have any children, because you are afraid you might get a boy. Your husband, he will die--and when men die, they die grand and permanent.\n\nHe says to you, "Jesus, Clara, the way you drive you'd think you're indestructible."\n\n"I am," you say.\n\n"Just watch the road, okay?"\n\n[[You prove it to him.]]\n[[You don't like how he talks to you.]]\n
After many years, you, too, are called Mother. But you feel that something is missing. You decide to take up smoking. You roll your own cigarettes in homage to a man who a long time ago made your mother not a mother anymore.\n\nSmoking is strictly prohibited in the convent, but they make an exception for you, because your piety is beautiful and unquestionable. You are allowed to smoke your cigarettes in the garden, sitting on a wooden bench and communing with God--who, in your imagination, though you would never utter such a thing, wears cowboy boots.\n\n[[The end.]]\n
But now you think about Lem again. Five years ago, you heard he got three consecutive life sentences for murdering two girls.\n\nYou know where he is imprisoned, and so you write him a letter. \n\nTwo weeks later, you get a response in the mail. You go out into the backyard to read it in the shade of an oak tree.\n\nHe remembers you, he says. He thinks of you fondly. He remembers how special you were to him so long ago. He says you taught him how to keep secrets.\n\nAs you read the letter, your dog Bingo runs up with a dead mouse in its mouth, and he drops it at your feet.\n\nYou wonder about that secret, animal part of you that plays with death--whatever became of it and if it's still buried in you somewhere.\n\n[[The end.]]\n
In the morning, Louis looks anxious.\n\n"What's the matter with you?" you ask.\n\nAs it turns out, he lost a significant amount of money the night before. You want to go see the presidents' heads carved in stone, but he wants to stay to win his money back. You agree that you will go and he will stay. That's compromise.\n\nWhen you come back in the evening, he is at the craps table, and there is a look in his eyes that you've never seen before. It has something to do with love and loss and lust and death. There is a desperation about him, and he's thrilled.\n\n"I was up ten thousand dollars earlier," he says to you.\n\n"Now?"\n\n"Now I'm down twenty."\n\nYou leave him there, and he does not come back to the room that night.\n\n[[Cocktail waitress.]]\n[[Collapse.]]\n
But, actually, you don't need to--because he does change. It's infinitesimal, but you see it. It happens on day when you and he are walking through the park, holding hands. You have just finished an ice cream bar, and he reaches over and wipes some chocolate off your chin. Then he smiles.\n\n"I like this," he says, meaning everything, you, the park, the ice cream, the whole day.\n\n"How come?" you ask.\n\n"I don't know. I just like it."\n\nAnd that's some kind of victory, however small--his wee acknowledgement and appreciation of the unknown world.\n\n[[The end.]]\n
You get married and have a child, a son, who grows into a toddler. \n\nAnd then, one day, Lem comes back. Your husband is at work, and it occurs to you that your boy, who has been playing in the backyard, has been quiet for a long time. You wipe your hands on a dishtowel and go out the backdoor. \n\nAt first, you don't see your son. Then you do. He is lying in the shade of the bushes at the perimeter of the yard. \n\nLem stands over him. He is grown into a full adult, but you recognize him nonetheless. Under the ragged clothes and the filth on his face, you recognize his face--particularly that grin, so pleased and abashed with the beauty of its offering.\n\n[[The end.]]\n
Before you begin your examination, you use your hands to stroke the hair of his head, very gently, as he once did to the fur of a dead cat you found behind the playground.\n\nThen something remarkable happens. The late Lemuel Wilson opens his eyes and sits up. \n\n"I've been waiting for you," he says. \n\nIt's like a fairy tale--grotesque and marvelous as all the true ones.\n\nYou and Lem get married, but you never conceive. You suppose, sitting with him on the porch of your house one Sunday in June, that all your powers to brings things to life--or to snuff life out--have been exhausted.\n\n[[The end.]]\n
So he gets a transfer from his job to a small branch in a town upstate, which he is able to do, because he has planned his life strategically with wealth and versatility as the foremost considerations.\n\nYou buy a farmhouse and move in. You imagined clearing cobwebs and putting on a fresh coat of paint, but Louis has found a property that is in very good shape. Move-in condition, it's called. So you can get started on number sixteen right away.\n\n"Maybe another of your lives is as a quilter," says Louis. "You could do that, too, during the days, and take care of two lives at once."\n\n"Don't joke," you say. Live may be contiguous, but they are not concurrent. Any fool knows that. He's just being wry.\n\nYou live in the farmhouse for a full year. But something is wrong. It doesn't feel right, and you begin to wonder if maybe some of those alternative lives shriveled on the vine for a reason. Or if maybe you got it wrong and the farmhouse life wasn't actually one of the thirty-two. It's impossible to say, you become mired in the distraction of thinking about it. \n\nYou stop eating. You no longer make love with Louis. While he watches television, you lie under the covers upstairs--the last thing you want to look at is the sunset over the wheat fields. \n\n"What's wrong with you?" says Louis. \n\n[[Let's try something else.]]\n[[It's him.]]\n
He doesn't recognize you, so you have to remind him.\n\n"A long time ago, I showed you a dead cat."\n\nThen he remembers you.\n\n"You were a freak," he says. "I was a freak too, but a different kind of freak."\n\nYou didn't know it at the time, but now he explains to you that his family had been religiously zealous. All he had seen wherever he looked was God, and he hadn't known how to interact with other children. \n\n"So," you say, "when you saw the dead cat, what did you see?"\n\n"Salvation," he says.\n\nHe smiles, and you smile back, and with those smiles something is built between the two of you. You realize that, in your own way, your life has been a holy one.\n\n[[The end.]]\n
He is more modest than you thought he would be. He says he has no knowledge of other Aldos or why they should keep stealing away the women of your family. So your exploration hits a dead end there. Except that you decide you'd like to see this Aldo again.\n\n"Do you think that's a good idea?" he says, jokingly.\n\nThree months later, you decide you are done with this place--that you'd like to see more of the world. You try to convince Aldo to go with you.\n\n"But your father," he says, "and your sister. They need you."\n\n"They're fine," you say. "I'm more people than just their caretaker. I don't even know the minimum of who I am."\n\n"You go," he says. "I'll stay. I like them. They like me. We'll get along."\n\nSo you do go. You find yourself, the following week, in a public park in Spain, feeling the grass tickle the backs of your legs and realizing what you've given your poor father and sister: an Aldo of their own.\n\n[[The end.]]\n
You do not remarry, and your hair turns gray. One day the doctor tells you you have cancer. He gives you a year to live at the outside. All your children mourn as if you were already gone.\n\nBut three years later, you are still living. \n\n"You're a miracle," say the doctors, but you're not so sure.\n\nThen, one day, you're sitting on the porch swing of your house and you see a crouched man come through the gate. Your granddaughter who cares for you goes down to meet the man, and she brings him up.\n\n"Grandma, he says he knows you from grade school. Can you believe it? His name is Lem. Do you remember him?"\n\nSo she leaves the two of you to reminisce.\n\n"I've been waiting for something," you say to Lem. "I think it might be you."\n\nHe reaches out with his fingers and strokes your hair, the way he did many decades ago with a gone cat.\n\nThis time, maybe your body won't be so reluctant.\n\n[[The end.]]\n
So you try the country, but something is still wrong. You don't like the smell of cows everywhere. \n\nThen you get a new idea. Maybe the skulls in your spine aren't undeveloped alternative selves--maybe they are what's left over from your previous lives. Maybe they are the trace remains of who you were before. You tell Louis about it.\n\n"You've got to be kidding me."\n\n"It's called metempsychosis," you say. "A bunch of religions believe in it. What makes you so sure they're wrong? Is it any crazier than Moses parting an ocean?"\n\n"I don't believe that either."\n\n"Well, you have believing problems."\n\n"Where do we have to move now?"\n\n"We don't have to move anywhere," you say. "I just have to do some research." So you find someone who does past life research, and he hypnotizes you and regresses you to those previous versions of yourself. It is all very exciting.\n\n[[Disappointment.]]\n[[Satisfaction.]]\n
You remember that time when you were just a girl in the fifth grade, and you found the dead cat in the bushes at the back of your school's playground. It was cut open, and you could see all its dried up insides. You were repelled but also fascinated, and you wanted to share it with somebody in order to make it a secret. So you told Lem, the boy who sat behind you in class and had a reputation for being strange.\n\n[[He touched it.|2A]]\n[[He kicked the dirt.|2B]]\n
You are reading //Moby-Dick//, and you learn something about Germans--how they used to believe that the vertebrae of the spine were actually undeveloped skulls. A whole string of skulls buried in your body, and this gets you thinking.\n\n[[About your mother.|1A]]\n[[About your boyfriend.|1B]]\n[[About that time in grade school.|1C]]\n
You explain it to your boyfriend, Louis, who is a dealer in abstract numbers for some financial community, and he says, "Clara, why are you always so morbid?"\n\nYou didn't realize it was morbid, and you tell him so. But he lives in a world where if skulls don't equal death then they don't equal anything. \n\n"Look," you try to say to him, "it's like you're carrying around all these different variations of yourself. Like you might potentially have been all these different people, but you're not. You're just who you are."\n\n"Am I supposed to feel sad about that?" he says.\n\nYou try to remember how the two of you ended up together. Maybe it was one of those things where you thought he might have a positive impact on you--maybe you thought he could make you care about balancing your checkbook.\n\n[[You do research.|2E]]\n[[You need a vacation.|2F]]\n
You wonder about your mother, who, when you were just a girl of thirteen, left you and your father to go traveling across the country with a man who wore cowboy boots and smoked cigarettes he rolled himself.\n\n"Clara," she said when she introduced you to him, "this is Aldo."\n\n"Miss," said Aldo. He nodded and blew cigarette smoke out of the corner of his mouth.\n\n"We're going away for a while," said your mother.\n\nAt first you thought she meant you too. Then you realized you were wrong.\n\n[[Menarche.|2C]]\n[[A man's household.|2D]]\n
Bones and What They Mean
But you feel some connection to him, so you do something you've never done. You wheel another table parallel to the one on which he lies. Then you lock the door and strip off all your clothes. You climb up on the table and position your body exactly as his is positioned. Then you close your eyes.\n\nWhat you feel is the coldness of the metal table, the awkwardness of lying so straight and rigid. But the other thing you feel is a kind of communion, as though this were your marriage bed.\n\nAfterward, you proceed with the autopsy. Under the cause of death, you put: "Magic."\n\nThen you walk outside and sit in the courtyard. \n\nLet them fire you if they want to.\n\n[[The end.]]\n
Still, you do what you are supposed to do. You kiss your daughter goodnight. You take her to the doctor when she's sick. You go to her school and listen to her teachers talk about her.\n\nExcept it's not enough, and when your daughter is thirteen years old and has very little to do with you, you begin to feel itchy for other worlds. In an airport, you meet a man who speaks of places like Venezuela and Tibet and Maine, where people live entirely different lives, and you begin to resent the arbitrary turn of events that has led you to be trapped in so particular and narrow an existence. \n\nThe man sees something boiling up in you, and it's that thing he falls in love with. What something of his do you fall in love with that leads you to go away with him?\n\nMaybe the way he moves through crowds without effort. Maybe the sense that things between you two could be over at an minute and no one would be to blame either way.\n\nMaybe the fact that he rolls his own cigarettes.\n\n[[The end.]]\n
The same thing happened later in your high school biology class when you had to dissect a fetal pig. Many of the girls opted out and were allowed to sit in the hallway with worksheets they could fill out from the textbook. Some of the boys gave one another high fives, but many others just looked nervous.\n\nYour dissection was immaculate, and the teacher said so. \n\n"Clara," he said, "you were born with the hands of a surgeon."\n\nYour little pig lay splayed out, pinned to the wax. The boys looked over your shoulder, and you thought they would admire your work, but they only laughed nervously and would not meet your gaze.\n\n[[You went to medical school.]]\n[[Your curse.]]\n
"How about South Dakota?" he says.\n\n"What's in South Dakota?"\n\n"Mount Rushmore. The Black Hills. Other things."\n\nYou picture rolling black hills, like the backbone of a Tahitian, and you say okay. So Louis takes some days off work, and you go. \n\nOn the airplane, as you are taxiing down the runway, he says, "Are you a different person yet?" He is being jocular.\n\nYou say, "Not yet."\n\n[[The casino.]]\n[[On the plane.]]\n
To spite them, you did go on to medical school, but you did not become a surgeon. You became a coroner. You had a special facility with the dead. You could look at the way their bodies had become unhinged, and you could tell others what had killed them. \n\nYou grew accustomed to the smell of flesh rot.\n\n[[You are mostly alone.]]\n[[A body you recognize.]]\n
At first, he is shaken. But then he regains his composure.\n\n"Actually," he says, "that makes sense. You're better with him than with me. I should have seen it before. It's okay. I'll be fine. We'll still see each other. After all, he's my brother."\n\nYou don't know how to take this, so you decide to take it at face value. You leave Louis and start seeing his brother seriously. Eventually the two of you get married. Louis is the best man at your wedding. He delivers a very well-written toast. \n\nYour married life is a good one, but years later when you are standing in your front yard trying to decide what to make for dinner, you realize that you have felt the loss of Louis all this time. What you feel the lack of is someone to tell you the right thing to be done.\n\n[[The end.]]\n
But you aren't looking for answers. You're looking for further mysteries. So you go to Louis's brother Max, who is a painter of abstract art, and you tell him about fives and thirty-threes.\n\n"Thirty-three vertebrae," he says. "That's a great number!"\n \nHe tells you to take off your shirt and lean over the table, because he's going to paint a portrait of your spine right then and there. You do so, because you are thrilled by his enthusiasm, and you like how he touches each of your vertebrae as he paints.\n\nAfterward, the two of you have sex, and you like all the flakes of dried paint on his skin.\n\nIt's the beginning of an affair, and you wonder if maybe you weren't really Max's girlfriend all along and not Louis's.\n\nBut being with Max also makes you appreciate Louis. You like the sensation of moving back and forth between the chaos of Max's studio to the reasonableness of Louis's tidy apartment--like hopping between a hot tub and a chilly pool. Your skin grows taut at the changes.\n\nAfter a while, you don't know what to do, so you decide to tell Louis that you've been cheating on him with his brother. Since he is the logical one, you think he might have answers.\n\n[[You love them both.]]\n[[Louis tells you what to do.]]\n
"I like five," he says. \n\n"Five?"\n\n"Yeah, five. It's good for multiples, it works well on a decimal scale. It's just a little more fine-tuned than ten. Plus, the nickel--it's the best size coin."\n\n"But five," you say. "It's so economical. It's got no life to it. No biology. There's nothing in your body that's five."\n\n"Fingers on each hand," he says. "Toes on each foot."\n\nLouis always has an answer for everything.\n\n[[Louis's brother.]]\n[[You decide to teach him.]]\n
You think again about those undeveloped skulls in your spine--that string of alternative yous. But the sky overhead is cloudless, and the wind makes a rustling sound in the trees. The world looks okay--it will go on--new babies will be born, new stories told. And you feel peaceful. \n \nThis place, it sings its absolutes. And you believe, with an almost religious faith, that no matter what path you took in life, it would have brought you here.
"It's you," he says. He recognizes me.\n\n"What are you doing here?"\n\n"My mother," he says. "She's sick."\n\n"I'm sorry to hear it."\n\nYou talk for a while longer, and then you get around to the topic you've been wanting to raise.\n\n"Do you remember the dead cat?" you ask.\n\n"Of course," he says. "I'll never forget."\n\n"I remember the way you touched it. How you stroked its fur. I think it's part of what made me who I am now."\n\nBut he shakes his head.\n\n"No," he says, "you're remembering it wrong. It wasn't me. It was you. You stroked the cat's fur. I was disgusted, but the way you touched the cat--I don't know--it made everything seem okay."\n\n[[The end.]]\n
You tell Louis that what you really need is to try something else. One of the other thirty-two options. \n\n"What about my thirty-two other options?" he says. "Don't ours together add up to sixty-four?"\n\n"Do you want to try one of yours?" you ask, concerned.\n\n"No," he says. "I'm good with number one."\n\n"Then let's try one of mine."\n\n[[Move to the country.]]\n[[Be more dangerous.]]\n
And it also seemed holy to you. Saints used to lose their heads all the time. The heads were chopped off by people the irreligious, and the saints carried their own heads to rest, holy and dignified, across battlefields and home fronts--and those who saw were filled with wonder.\n\nIt's true, most of these saints were women. They lost their heads or cried blood or otherwise had their bodies everted for the sake of the holy spirit. And then people painted their pictures on tapestries and on the walls of sacred places.\n\n[[You became reckless.]]\n[[You became a nun.]]\n
So it was a secret between you. You told him to stop. You told him he shouldn't do that. Instead, he drew pictures and gave them to you. They were pictures of people who had died in a variety of ways. He used red pencil to represent blood. \n\nYou knew it was wrong, and when you went to church, you prayed for him, and for the animals, and for yourself. But it was also something private--a world of your own that nobody else was invited into apart from the two of you. It was romantic.\n\nMaybe you would have told somebody about it eventually, but then your parents moved you three states away and you started at a new school and had to make new friends, none of whom drew you violent pictures or slew animals on your behalf. You learned what it was to be a natural girl, and then you grew into teenagehood and went to dances and made out with boys who wore sports jerseys and drank stolen beer.\n\nYou became seduced by normalcy.\n\n[[You write Lem a letter.]]\n[[Another offering.]]\n
The next day it was a rabbit.\n\n"I wonder what's killing all these animals," you said.\n\n"Things just die," said Lem.\n\nBut the day after that, you figured it out. It was a guinea pig--one of the pets from the class. Its name was Marshall.\n\n"It's you," you said to Lem, "isn't it?"\n\nWhat you had seen on his face wasn't indifference. It was deference. He was making offerings to you.\n\n"Yeah," he said. "I thought you liked it."\n\n[[You kept it a secret.]]\n[[You told the teacher.]]\n
The last letters you got from her were from Spain, so you go there. She had described a little tavern in Barcelona overlooking the Mediterranean. You find the tavern from her letters, and you sit there drinking and eating clams. You wait for something to show you the way.\n\nBut the fact is that the letter is over a year old. What are the chances she will still be in Barcelona?\n\n[[You recognize someone.]]\n[[She is.]]\n
You think about Louis back home. You wonder if he's eating sloppy joes and making the bed very neatly every morning. You miss him.\n\nAnd you wake up one morning in a hotel room in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and you go the lobby for your free continental breakfast, and there he is.\n\n"What are you doing here?" you ask.\n\n"Your last letter," he says. "It told me to come here."\n\n"It did?" You have no memory of writing that.\n\n"I guess you knew where you'd end up," he says. "Did you have a nice time?"\n\n"I think I missed you," you say.\n\n"Sure," he says. "How many lives do you need anyway? It takes all your time doing just one right."\n\n[[The end.]]\n
"Besides," you say, "isn't the number thirty-three curious on its own? I mean, you deal in numbers all the time."\n\n"It's two threes put together, one in the tens column and the other--"\n\n"You know what I mean," you say. "It's the RPM of a record. It's exactly one third of a hundred."\n\n"Well, not exactly."\n\n"You're being difficult."\n\nYou let the matter drop, and you eat dinner. You want to have some ice cream afterward, but Louis is not a fan of dessert, and you don't feel right about eating ice cream alone.\n\nLater, before he drifts to sleep beside you in bed, you say, "Aren't there any numbers that seem magical to you?"\n\n[[Five.]]\n[[The opposite of magic.]]\n
In the end, he loses everything he has, and when you get back home he breaks up with you and tells you he never wants to see you again. \n\nYou think that's fair enough. After all, you've definitely become someone else. You've become a slaughterer of men. \n\nAfter the breakup, you aren't sure what to do, so you decide to go back to South Dakota. You feel like you weren't done with the place. You go out into the hills and watch trains go by in the distance. \n\nWhat do you know about yourself? Nothing completely discernible. Except that you are alive, in this place at this moment. \n\nAnd maybe that's enough.\n\n[[The end.]]\n
And, afterward, they all talked--the other boys and girls. They said you and Lem were lovers now, because you two had gone into the bushes during lunch. They sang songs that united your name with his name. Clara and Lem. Lem and Clara. You didn't know how to respond. When it came to bushes and secret behaviors, was a dead cat better or worse than kissing a curious boy?\n\nYou decided, since you were already accused of it, to kiss Lem for real. You agreed to meet with him, in a gully between your house and his, when the sun was directly overhead and the dust made you cough.\n\n[[You kissed him.]]\n[[Chapstick.]]\n
(You thought about all the elements of your body that regenerated with time. Nails, hair, blood, skin. You read once that all the cells in your body are replaced by new ones so frequently that the body you had seven years ago is entirely different, on a cellular level, from the one you have now. Magic, that. You could see how some people believe in reincarnation. You were being reincarnated all the time. Even now, you were filled with a thousand little births and deaths.)\n\n[[Like beheaded saints.]]\n
You suggest moving to the country, with him, and living in a farmhouse and raising herbs in a garden and sitting on a porch when the sun goes down and listening to wind blowing through wheat stalks.\n\n"Really?" he says. "What number is that?"\n\nYou say, "Sixteen."\n\nHe says, because he is a good boyfriend who loves you for your idiosyncrasies, "Okay."\n\n[[Maybe you should become a quilter?]]\n[[A new idea.]]\n
Your father hires a boy to help out with the yard work. The boy comes and mows the lawn once a week. \n\nThey are talking over lemonade one day when the boy, who calls himself Bud, reveals that Bud isn't his actual name.\n\n"What's your real name?" your father asks. Then he stops himself, waves hands in the air. "Wait," he says, "don't tell me--"\n\nBut it's too late.\n\n"Aldo," the boys says.\n\nFrom that day forward, your father works the boy like a slave.\n\n[[Aldo takes revenge.]]\n[[Aldo submits.]]\n
Now you wonder how many of those lives live in your spine, each little skull a life to be popped like a nodule of bubble wrap. \n\nYou have a husband and two children. When you get sick, your husband says, "Mommy's sick again. Just keep the TV low, okay?"\n\nYou sleep so soundly that you never remember your dreams. You wonder again where you go during those times. \n\nYour grow older. Your children grow up, they go to college, they get married, they have children of their own. Unlike you, your progeny are strong and hearty of stock. Like your husband. Except that when he goes, he goes quickly. A heart attack in the middle of the night. You wake up next to him, and he's not there anymore. There's no telling where he went.\n\n[[You get cancer.]]\n[[A peculiar grandchild.]]\n
In the morning, he tells you he won at craps. You ask him how much, and he says, "A lot."\n\n"Do you feel different?" you ask him. "I mean, now that you've won a lot of money. Are you a gambler now when you weren't before? Is that part of who you are?"\n\n"I don't know," he says. "Maybe I'm a gambler in South Dakota but a murder victim in Rhode Island."\n\n"Let's try it," you say.\n\nSo you and Louis go to Rhode Island.\n\n[[Make your own laws.]]\n[[Rhode Island with Clara.]]\n
(Such catalogs, you think, may show you who you are. We are all catalogs, collections of paper forms filed in folders and stuffed away in cabinets. But how did you know if you were using the right measures?)\n\n[[So you go on a date.]]\n
"Actually," he says, "I'm still a magician, but just not as good a one. There's more magic offshore."\n\nHe speaks your language, this magician. You and he determine to stay afloat as long as possible. \n\nThere is, in fact, more magic at sea--because on the last day of your life, your ship is attacked by pirates. Not the contemporary kind with rifles and motorboats, but rather the parrot and peg-leg kind. They board your ship and start killing people, and they're not singing songs about rum while they do it. Still, they are the most authentic looking pirates you've ever seen.\n\nWhile you wait to die on the deck of the ship, you turn to the magician.\n\n"Do you regret things?" you ask.\n\n"Not really."\n\n"Me neither. Of all the things I could've been killed by, magic is the best."\n\n[[The end.]]\n
You end up in Alaska, which you weren't expecting. The glaciers, the tundras, the tours of Inuit villages. \n\nYou don't want to get back on the boat, so you book a flight directly from Anchorage to Tokyo. And then from Tokyo to New Delhi and from New Delhi to Istanbul. \n\nYou are burning through your savings account, but it's no matter. Maybe one of your alternative lives is an intransigent beggar. \n\nYou lose track of time, and you can't count the number of places you've been. You wonder if you've accounted for all the vertebrae in your spine and all their various possibilities. It's unlikely that you've exhausted them all, but, upon reflection, you're happy with what you've seen of the world and yourself. \n\n[[You remember Louis.]]\n[[Peru.]]\n
This seems to you like a very reasonable position, so you tell him about the chain of skulls in your spine. \n\n"They're all just bones," he says. "Nothing to worry about. Even that one." And he puts his palm on the side of your head. \n\nSo you begin an affair with him, because you like how careless he is, like a man, and you like how free it feels to let go of all your pursuits of things that aren't there. You think that if you could get rid of all your longings and desperations, maybe that's what God feels like--free of all wanting up there in the clouds. \n\nYou and Aldo travel, first to Switzerland, then to Germany, then to Greece. You enjoy making love to him, and you sometimes think about your mother--how you and she have shared almost nothing in your lives except men.\n\n[[The end.]]\n
You tell your father that's what you're going to do. You visit him in the cemetery and talk to his headstone, which is a thing you've seen people do. \n\nBut you are distracted. All those headstones in a line, like another set of vertebrae, like the backbones of giants buried in the earth.\n\n[[Spain.]]\n
You tell him you always thought you should be more dangerous. \n\n"You mean doing more dangerous things?"\n\nNo, not quite. You explain that maybe you should be a prisoner. You could do something criminal--bad enough to get you thrown in prison, but not something so bad as murder. You'd have to do some research to figure out exactly what kind of crime. But then, in prison, there are all kinds of personae you could adopt. And surely there would be some shivs involved. Also: conjugal visits.\n\n"Yeah," says Louis, "I don't think so."\n\n[[Move to the country.]]\n
Your father takes custody of Lucy, because Susan's new life with her new man doesn't have accommodations for a child.\n\nSo Lucy also has a mother who's sloughed her off for an Aldo. She cries and cries, but your father does the best he can. He makes her dinners from cans, and they eat in front of the television. They have special trays for just that purpose.\n\nAnd you? You'd like to know what's up with all these Aldos and their stealing power. So you put an ad in the paper: "Seeking an Aldo for casual inquiry and conversation. Plusses: rolling your own cigarettes or being an airline pilot."\n\nA man answers your ad, and you meet him at a restaurant, explaining that you'll pay for his dinner.\n\n[[Another Aldo.]]\n[[The breed of Aldos.]]\n
But one day she does come into the bar, looking for all the world like a mother. She's gone a little gray, and she looks slightly worn, but you would have recognized her anywhere. You, on the other hand, you were young when she left. What you look like now is only a pale reflection of who you were at thirteen.\n\nSo when you talk to her, she doesn't recognize you.\n\nYou talk for a long while, as expatriates do. \n\nThe conversation turns to mothers and daughters. She says she has not been a great mother in her life. She believes her daughter despises her, and she doesn't blame her. She wishes she had been a different person, someone more capable of doing what she was supposed to do. She is full of regret and shame, and you feel sorry for her. \n\n[[You keep yourself secret.]]\n[[You forgive her.]]\n
So you go on a date with a man named Benjamin, and you explain to him about your spine of skulls and how they are a symbol of all the things you are not a mother of. He is stirred by the image, and he says, "Let me see," and he turns you around and runs his fingers up and down your chain of skulls.\n\nYou get drunk and go home with him, and he is kind, and he also feels overwhelmed by the things he is not a father of--and so you decide to get married and put an end to all this non-parenting.\n\n[[You don't conceive.]]\n[[You have children.]]\n
Your daughter has another child, a boy. She's decided to name your grandson Lemuel.\n\n"Where did you come up with that name?" you ask.\n\n"I don't know," she says. "It just sounded nice. Gentle."\n\nYou sit for the grandchildren when your daughter has errands to run. On the front porch of your house, your rock the infant Lem in his bassinette. You are patient. You will wait for him to grow up, learn language, look you in the eye as a full, true person.\n\nYou have some questions, and you think he might be able to answer them.\n\n[[The end.]]\n
"This really isn't my favorite vacation," he says.\n\nThe two of you are in Rhode Island for a week, and nobody even makes an attempt to murder Louis. You are frustrated.\n\n"Nothing makes any sense," you say. "I've got now laws to live by."\n\n"So try making your own laws," he says. "To hell with the universe."\n\nWhat he says is logical. So the next day, you and he are walking over a tall bridge that spans a steep valley with a rocky river at the bottom of it. When you are halfway over, Louis peers over the edge, and you give him a push. He falls out of sight without making a sound.\n\nAnd suddenly the world makes just a little bit more sense.\n\n[[The end.]]\n
Louis gives her a skewed look.\n\n"The whole point of numbers," he says, "is that they //aren't// magic. They're the opposite of magic. They're what we have to explain that magic isn't really magic."\n\n"Okay, okay," you say. "You're very literal. Forget magic. But there must be numbers you //like// more than others."\n\n[[Five.]]\n
"I don't know," you say. "It's not right. Let's try something else."\n\n"Jesus, Clara," he says. Over the past year, he has become less charmed by your quirks than he used to be. "We can't just keep doing this. What's next? Are you going to be an astronaut? An arsonist?"\n\nSo you take him at his word. The next day, when he's off at work, you go around the house with a box of matches. You strike them and hold them to the ends of the curtains. When it gets too difficult to breathe inside the house, you go out into the front yard. You put a lawn chair by your herb garden, and you watch the flames grow. \n\nMeanwhile, you pick spearmint leaves and crush them between your fingers, loving the smell and wondering where such a smell might lead you.\n\n[[The end.]]\n
But something odd happens. You and your husband wait many years for the grandchildren to come, but none do. First, one of your daughters is infertile, then one of your sons is gay. Neither of them wants to adopt. Your other son is a Lothario who has no plans to settle down and live what he calls a provincial existence. Your second daughter decides she hates children, and your third is disgusted by the state of the world and doesn't want to contribute to its populace. Your last daughter even goes so far as to become a nun to avoid motherhood.\n\nYou and Benjamin sit on the porch of your house, waiting for your children to visit, which they do infrequently. You think about getting a pet dog but decide against it.\n\n"So what have we created?" your husband asks.\n\n"Ends," you say. "We created a lot of ends."\n\n[[The end.]]\n
Later that night, when the halls of the hospital are quiet, a young boy comes into the room. Both you and the girl in the bed beside you recognize him. He comes to your bedside and reaches out his little hand to stroke your hair. \n\nYou have never felt so tired, and you are happy he's come.\n\nIn the morning you stand up from the bed and look down to see someone who looks an awful lot like you--except there's a lot of commotion around her, and doctors rushing about in a panic. Personally, you don't see what all the fuss is about. \n\nYou leave the hospital by the main entrance. The summer day puts you in mind of childhood, and you wonder if you ever really left it behind.\n\n[[The end.]]\n
You disagree. In fact, what seems most true is that what you are is a collection of things you've lost. You are defined by goneness. You tell him so.\n\n"I'm sorry for you," he says. "Many people are gone. Then again, many people are here."\n\nHe takes a pouch of tobacco from his jacket and rolls himself a cigarette. \n\n"You are here, and I am here. Barcelona is here. The sea is here. It would be a shame for all those things to be here and for you not to see them. That, too, is a kind of abandonment, no?"\n\nYou look at the city you, noticing for the first time all the fervent life humming around you on all sides.\n\n"Cigarette?" offers Aldo.\n\nYou don't smoke, but you say, "Sure," and you are surprised at yourself.\n\n[[The end.]]\n
Joshua Gaylord
You told the teacher that Lem had been murdering the animals. Lem was transferred to a different school, and you stopped thinking about him. You were surprised at your own righteousness, which was only reinforced by your teacher and your parents and others. You hadn't realized how heroic and moral you were until people told you that you were--and you were pleased.\n\n"She has a strong sense of right and wrong," said your mother to her friends over dinner one night. \n\nYou gazed at everyone present with the gravity of abstract justice. \n\n[[Lem comes to your rescue.]]\n[[Lem returns with a message.]]\n
What else have you not been a mother of?\n\nTwelve babies a year since the time you started menstruating. That's 180 babes, give or take, that you are not mother of. All of them, in fact. You have a perfect record. Even that one when you were seventeen and the condom broke, and you felt for sure that your shame and your sin had earned you a baby. But not even that one. You were mother of the shame, but not mother of the consequence.\n\nAlso, that boy himself, whose name was Roger and who was looking for someone to admonish him and keep him right and true. You were not a mother to him either, and so he found someone else who would be. \n\nAlso, the cat in the alley behind your apartment. Some people leave opened cans of tuna for that cat. You don't. \n\nAnd all the pets you thought about getting but didn't.\n\nThere's a surplus in the world of things you're not the mother of.\n\n[[So you go on a date.]]\n[[We are all catalogs.]]\n
You did not have many relationships, because men found excused not to be around you when they discovered you handled corpses for a living. You existed for a long while on a series of brief affairs that never amounted to much.\n\nNow you spend most of your evenings reading books like //Moby-Dick// and discovering in them curious affinities for death that are familiar to you. You wonder if artists live somehow closer to death than other people. \n\nAnd then one day you are sitting in the courtyard outside the hospital, and someone you recognize sits on a bench across the way from you. \n\nYou close the book you're reading, and you go over to him.\n\n"Lem," you say.\n\n[[Zealot.]]\n[[Misremembering.]]\n
But what you discover is that you were never anyone very important or interesting. It's not like you were Catherine the Great or Queen Victoria or even Twiggy. Mostly, you were just the wife of a common farmhand. You have baked a lot of bread over the years. That and stews. It's been all bread and stews for you for centuries.\n\n"How's it going?" asks Louis one day while you sit on the porch of your farmhouse.\n\n"Disappointing," you say.\n\n"Really? What's the most interesting thing you've ever been?"\n\n"A woman who moved from the city to the country because she thought she might be someone better."\n\n[[The end.]]\n
What Benjamin doesn't know is that none of the children are his. You suspected that he was infertile when you stopped taking birth control while you were still dating. So after you got married, you began a series of affairs with men for the sake of their sperm. You never let any of them get in the way of your family life, and now you have six children who all look very different from each other. It is a joke within the family. \n\n"It looks like we have six different fathers!" say the children, and they laugh.\n\nBut you wonder. You sit in the backyard, with your children all around you, and you watch your husband playing happily with them. He doesn't know that he's really childless. And so what have you done to him? Have you given him something or taken something away?\n\n[[The end.]]\n
You wonder how much of yourself you might find reflected in her--another of your father's daughters.\n\nYou watch Lucy closely, but her smiles and gurgles don't tell you much. The language of babies is a private one.\n\n[[Another loss.]]\n
You say, "I forgive you," and then, suddenly, she knows you who are. \n\nShe embraces you and weeps, and she kisses you all over. Your forehead, your cheeks, your hands. She says now that you're together, she'll never leave you again. You'll live together, the two of you, in Barcelona. You'll have a new life, like compatriots in the world. Forget men and forget careers and forget everything. It'll just be the two of you.\n\nBut you say, "No."\n\nWhen asks what you mean, you can't quite explain it except to say that you are leaving her and that she's now allowed to follow. It's not spite, exactly, but it's complicated. In any case, you tell her, it's not so bad being left behind. You get used to it. \n\n"It becomes," you say, "who you are."\n\nAnd then you walk out of the tavern.\n\n[[The end.]]\n