Grace & Beauty
After my first year of college, I moved into a house near the university at the end of a narrow road. The owner of the house, a stout, blond woman named Christine, worked for the company that made Cliff’s Notes. Her yellow bedspread was covered with bumblebees, tigers, and an assortment of other yellow or black stuffed animals. She traveled for her job, she told me, so more often than not I would be alone in the house. Financially she didn’t need a roommate, but she suspected the neighbors were beginning to feel imposed on about having to feed her cat.
“It’s lucky you’re an English major,” she laughed. “I can get you Cliff’s Notes for every book you’ll have to read.”
Notwithstanding the yellow and black, I liked the house. It was old and smelled like furniture polish, cat food, and earth. The cat was a fat male named Cornflake, the color of an orange creamsicle. Most evenings he slept on the kitchen floor while I studied at the big wooden table, occasionally waking him with some observation about my reading.
Cornflake squirmed and bit when picked up. He eyed me suspiciously when I bent down to rub the soft fur of his belly. At last I came up with a scheme to win him over: I bought cat treats and kept them in my top dresser drawer, soft brown morsels in the shape of little fish with a round, red circle in the middle. “Stuffed pieces!” proclaimed the front of the packet, though it didn’t say what they were stuffed with. I thought of these red dots as little hearts, symbolic of my affection for Cornflake.
That year, I got a boyfriend.
Because I went to a liberal arts school, I was able to get away with taking only two science classes. I chose soft, nearly mathless sciences, meteorology and astronomy, and filled my notebooks with words and pictures and few numbers. My Chinese meteorology professor, Alex, made beautiful cloud drawings in dry erase marker on the white board.
Astronomy is where I met Jack. He sat directly behind me, making me dissatisfied with my sloppy drawings and illegible notes. I’d always thought him interesting looking: tall and thin, with black hair that he alternately spiked up or combed down into his dark eyes. Two thin black rubber gaskets hung around his right wrist like bracelets. He was somehow misnamed Svenson, with its images of snowy landscapes, blue-eyed Vikings, their gods doomed to defeat at the end of time.
One day I checked my email in the computer lab at school and found a terse message: “Lane, just wanted to see if you have the moon chart for astronomy. You always seem so together.” My name’s Elaine, and no one had ever called me Lane before. Was this his way of claiming me, or was he just mistaken about my name?
You always seem so together.
I had the chart. I emailed him back that minute.
It turns out Jack has a sad story, which he tells me as we sit in his dorm room one afternoon. It’s a cool, green day, everything fresh and growing outside. I’d like to be out there, but because of Jack’s allergies, we sit on his bed. There’s nowhere else to sit. The room is nine by ten, with a narrow path from bed to door through the mess. As he talks, Jack plays with the long laces of his maroon Doc Marten boot where his left foot is folded in, half-Indian-style.
“I always knew I was adopted. My mom was thirty-seven when they got me, and I think they’d run out of hope. I’ve seen the agency, a red brick building. The funny thing is that they got me and then, boom, Benji came along.”
I look at him, but his eyes are on the floor. A copy of The Naked Lunch, open to one of the first pages, is propped upside down against a speaker.
“They’re good people. I always had everything I wanted. I just didn’t fit in, you know?”
He goes to the wooden dresser all the dorm rooms are equipped with and opens the top drawer, from which he pulls a photo in a wooden frame. He hands it to me, and what he’s saying is there, so obvious that I think he could have said nothing and I’d have known. The three of them, compact, all-American, with the same pale eyes and light hair, and beside them black-eyed, towering Jack, like the family’s immigrant servant.
“I think I might be a Jew. Maybe sometime I’ll try to look up some records. I wear this, anyway.” He pulls a chain from under his t-shirt and shows me a silver Star of David charm.
I don’t know what to say to this. It hardly seems Jack’s style to align himself with so industrious and formidable a people. I like him all the more for it.
“The Jews should feel flattered,” I say.
Jack has a strange way of wooing me. He writes me notes addressed to Arnold Layne, a transvestite who steals women’s underwear off clotheslines in the song by Pink Floyd, and Laniac, and any number of other names that sound kind of like mine but aren’t. He writes in his careless scrawl on the backs of receipts, bank envelopes, napkins, and he signs them with names like Michael Jackson and Space Ghost. They never say anything romantic. Sometimes they’re graphs about economics, or several pages about a book Jack’s reading or a movie he’s watched. One night I go outside at the end of my shift and find a gaudy plastic flower under my driver’s side windshield wiper; another time it’s a flesh-colored muscle man action figure. It glares at me, barbell raised high above its head, its little face clinched into a grimace.
It’s impossible not to like him. It’s as if he’s stuck somewhere in childhood, but with all the cleverness that age and extensive reading have given him. He has an old Operation game and a fluorescent green hula-hoop hanging from nails on the walls of his dorm room. Small toys, the kind that come with kids’ meals in fast food restaurants, are set up everywhere: on the windowsill, along the bookshelves, on top of the television. In the disaster of his room, he can’t find the remote control, but it doesn’t matter: all he watches is Cartoon Network.
Jack gives me two pictures of himself. In the first one he stands against a cinderblock wall, head tilted to the right, eyes closed. He wears camouflage pants, a wrinkled white button-up shirt with diagonal pale blue pinstripes, and red Converse sneakers. On the back he’s written, “I was bleak of brain, all drained of brilliance that day. Of course, I only look 7% better on other days.” I recognize the quote, as he knew I would; it’s a line from “Howl” by Allen Ginsberg. The other one is his second-grade school photograph. Along the top his mother had written in round blue letters, “Jackson Columbus Svenson, grade 2,” to which Jack added: “It was all downhill after this.”
He’s as bright as he was reputed to be. He’s particularly marvelous when taking tests, but he can’t seem to make himself do his schoolwork. The last two or three days before a test, he does several weeks’ worth of reading, hardly sleeping and not stopping to eat proper meals. At these times he looks hollow-eyed and pale, and his scraggly facial hair comes in dark, giving his face a criminal aspect. I don’t understand why he does this to himself, or why he devotes most of his time to things that have nothing to do with school. He could have perfect grades.
The classes Jack always makes As in are those taught by Dr. Darveaux in the political science department, and I feel almost annoyed with the professor for enabling Jack just because he’s smart. Dr. Darveaux frequently extends deadlines for him. Last semester in his independent study class, every time they met to discuss Jack’s project for the class they ended up talking about politics. When, at the end of the semester, he was nowhere near being finished, Dr. Darveaux gave him an “Incomplete” and told him they’d continue with it this semester. More than halfway into the semester, he’s done nothing.
Although he studies political science, what Jack loves are movies. He keeps a list of every one he watches and he catalogues them in a database, cross-referenced by director, genre, and year (the year they were made, not when he saw them). Last year he watched 302 movies. Dr. Darveaux laughs and tells him he’s not living in the real world, but I’m not sure it’s funny.
Benji, Jack’s brother, annoys me almost immediately. We’re sitting in the back-yard drinking mint juleps that Becky made to make me feel at home. A sweet gesture, but I’ve never had a mint julep in my life before today. She’s walked over to the edge of the fence and stands talking to a neighbor, an older woman wearing gardening gloves. Benji’s home for the summer, working as a lifeguard at the Chevy Chase Country Club swimming pool.
“I had to take geometry last semester,” he complains, crunching a piece of ice from his drink. “It killed me. I went to high school in Europe, and they don’t teach geometry over there. Geometry’s like a freaking history lesson for them, because nothing new’s happened since like, the time of the French Revolution.”
I can just imagine him in Europe, knocking them dead with his foreign accent, his confidence. Maybe that—living abroad—is what’s made him so all-American. Jack and I, on the other hand, are cast from the same mold, uncomfortable, uncertain where we stand in the world, out of place everywhere. It’s an insult to us that people like Benji even exist, but that one should be Jack’s brother is an outrage. We wouldn’t say this, of course; we never say anything like this. It’s such a habit that even with each other, we guard our walls, hold things in. And Jack, after all, is the usurper. He has no claims on his parents.
I met them all last night, athletic Lars, gentle Becky, and frat boy Benji, dressed in baggy red soccer shorts, a Guinness t-shirt, and rubber Adidas sandals with white athletic socks. There was also a tiny Swedish grandmother, whose welcome Lars translated for us. Since their grandmother was a recent addition to the household, neither Jack nor Benji knew any Swedish to address her with. “She has taught me a few things this summer, though,” he told us, widening his blue eyes as though about to say something important. “Dum an huvud means dumb in the head.”
There’s a black bug on one of the mint leaves in my drink. I surreptitiously try to fish it out with my plastic drink stirrer before Becky comes back, but it’s dead and can’t cooperate with me. I end up sticking my thumb and forefinger into my drink and pulling out the whole leaf, which I flick into the grass.
“Just one piece too many, huh?” Jack winks.
“God, when will that woman learn?” is Benji’s mock exclamation.
That woman is walking back from the fence, so I give them both a look to be quiet. But as soon as she’s close enough to hear, Benji says, “Laney says your mint juleps don’t have the same down-home flavor as her mama’s.”
Christine doesn’t like Jack. There’s no place in her economy for a grown man who acts like a child. She doesn’t tell me that she doesn’t like him, though, and for a long time I don’t know it. Then one day it just comes to me, out of nowhere, that except for sometimes coming into the kitchen if she needs something while we’re studying, she keeps her distance, and when I mention his name she never comments on anything I say.
When I ask Christine why she doesn’t like Jack, she doesn’t protest or claim to like him. She’s so frank about her disapproval that it’s almost as if she’s been waiting for me to ask.
“He doesn’t strike me as much of a boyfriend. The two of you never go anywhere. You just sit around here, or in his dorm room, and he talks. On your birthday he couldn’t even get it together enough to give you a present, much less take you out and make sure you had fun. It was your twenty-first birthday. That should have been memorable, Laney.”
This is true. He’d said that he’d been organizing a kind of scavenger hunt in the library with clues in different books leading to each of my presents, which he got away from him, it was so complicated. Two days after my birthday he came over with a pair of Star of David earrings wrapped in Hanukkah wrapping paper and two books, not wrapped at all.
“All he ever does is sit and drone on and on about himself. He never asks you your opinion about anything.”
“He’s angsty,” I say. “He’s had a hard life.” But then I think about sweet, maternal Becky; this isn’t exactly true. So I add, “He’s traumatized about being adopted,” and this too strikes me as unsatisfactory.
“He’s obsessed with himself,” Christine says emphatically. I know she has no other reason for saying these things than a genuine interest in my well-being. Christine is incapable of guile, jealousy, or any of the other meaner characteristics I might suspect if it were someone else. Christine is like bread: simple, good, and exactly what she purports to be. “You cook for him all the time. I know he can’t cook for you in the dorm, but why can’t he at least take you out to dinner every once in a while?”
I don’t know why. I haven’t ever considered this.
“Annnnd,” she adds, grinning, “he drives me crazy, sniffling all the time! I feel like setting a box of Kleenexes down in front of him every time he walks through the door. Mumble, mumble, sniff. Mumble, mumble, sniff!”
When she laughs, Christine has faint, fine lines at the corners of her eyes, and I’m reminded that she’s a lot older than I am. I think she would make a good mom, and I wonder why she hasn’t had kids. Maybe she can’t have them; we’ve never talked about anything so serious. I realize that I don’t know much about her life. Maybe she sees me the same way she sees Jack, wrapped up in my own life, unconcerned about anyone else.
“Listen, Laney, and I’m being serious now. Think about it. If he treats you this way now, imagine how it would be if you were married to him. You don’t want to waste your time or his if you can’t be happy with him in the long run.”
“Thanks,” I say, looking in her eyes.
She squeezes my hand and smiles. “You got to look out for yourself.”
I go around like Hamlet with bad dreams and uncertainties. There’s something unthinkable growing inside me. I imagine a curlicue green tail poking out of a tan oval seed. When I was little I’d lie on my belly watching TV and feeling my pulse pound in my stomach. This is how it is to have a baby in your belly.
But it can’t be.
But it is.
I have to tell Jack. I know this and yet I don’t tell him. Days pass and I practice in my car what I’ll say, how I’ll remind him of the sponge: he knows I used it every time; it’s not my fault, it’s not his fault. I think these things, speak the words out loud in my car, so that they exist, are real; it’s just a matter of retrieving them when the time comes. Then I see him, with his movie posters and fast-food toys, and think that I can’t possibly do this to him.
One morning before seven o’clock his friend Greg calls me and tells me to come to the hospital.
“I don’t know what made him do it. It was like one, one-thirty. I wasn’t home yet. When we got there he was on the ground. I didn’t even see him, Tina just started screaming her head off.”
As soon as the spring semester ended, Jack had moved into the upstairs of a big Victorian house in the Montford neighborhood with Greg. It’s given out that he was drunk and went out on the ledge of the house to pee, where he lost his balance. He may have been drunk. His hand and wrist were sliced up by the broken Southern Comfort bottle he was holding. But it wasn’t a fall. And I’m not even surprised.
“I know it was stupid,” he says when we’re alone in the room. “I don’t know why, but… I’ve had this idea that I’ve wanted to die lately. When I went home for the break I looked some stuff up.” He pauses and plays with the frayed edge of the bedsheet. “Both my parents were Italian, just Italian.” He exhales slowly. I notice that the Star of David isn’t hanging around his neck. He’s no longer one of the chosen people, then.
“And there’s a history of mental illness on both sides of the family,” he adds. I wish for his sake that he had not discovered this.
“At least this looks kind of normal, accidental. Don’t say anything to anybody, I can’t get locked away.” He laughs nervously. He’s embarrassed. The only reason he’s telling me this is that he thinks Greg would if he didn’t. Greg’s already called his father in Chevy Chase. He was still drunk enough, or scared enough, or something, to talk as he lay there waiting for the ambulance.
This is what adoption did to him, I think. This is what adoption could do to someone else. Or these are his damaged genes: suicide, madness.
I go to see him one more time at the hospital, two days later. It’s sunny and gorgeous outside; the wind blows hard.
“This is the last time I want to see you,” I say.
He lies there looking at me, his arm bandaged to the elbow, face cut and bruised, and his expression doesn’t change at all—not one flicker of pain or even surprise.
“Okay,” he says, and turns his head away.
I wake up dry-mouthed, working on a headache. The sun slants through the blinds and illuminates little pieces of dust in the air. How can it be this beautiful outside? I want a bleak gray rain, or a tumultuous storm with howling winds.
I miss my ten o’clock class and lie in my room all morning, getting up only to walk from bed to bathroom. At two o’clock I call the Chinese restaurant down the street and order food. I put my sunglasses on, pull my hair back into a sloppy ponytail, then sit staring at it in Christine’s kitchen, wondering what gave me the idea that I’d be able to eat. The food is greasy and flesh-colored, and after taking three bites I rake it into the sink and watch it slide down the disposal. I crack my fortune cookie open and pull out the slip with trembling fingers, absurdly hoping for some omen, some instruction as to what I should do. The red-lettered slip proclaims: YOU ARE BORN WITH GRACE & BEAUTY.
I throw up into the sink.
I remember the Operation game on Jack’s wall, in which all that’s required for the extraction of unwanted materials from a patient’s body is a steady hand. I look the place up in the phone book, make the appointment, write down directions. Meanwhile, eight days loom during which can take place some catastrophe to prevent my having to go.
The night of that day, I dream it all over again, so nearly like it happened that I find myself thinking in the dream, I’m not dreaming. I’m stuck in this moment. It’s real. It will never not be real now.
I walk along the sidewalk toward the office; the same verdant jungle of plants lines the walkway, but in the dream, they shoot out tendrils that pull at my wrists and ankles. The woman with short gray hair emerges from the overgrowth and steps onto the sidewalk. In the dream she tries to hand me something, but I can’t see what it is. No, thank you, I say politely, as if she were a salesperson. Then she holds it up closer to my face and I see it clearly: a Chinese take-out box.
After this I’m in the waiting area, swallowing a Valium. Only in the dream it’s not the tiny blue pill but an oversized red M&M that leaves a bright red smear on my sweating palm. It’s on my hands, I moan. An efficient, Mary Poppins-type nurse appears and wipes my palm with a baby wipe. She goes around the room wiping all our hands as if we’re schoolgirls. We all wear the white gowns, only in the dream everyone’s gown is open in the front to reveal a tumorous bulge.
I don’t see the middle-aged woman whose daughter came with her, but the woman whose boyfriend died in the motorcycle crash is there, and the two brown-skinned girls, along with other women with indistinct faces. The first woman keeps repeating pleadingly, And none of you heard about it? There was a big wreck on I-40. It was in the paper. But everyone has her own set of circumstances, and no one looks at her.
Then I’m in the operating room, feet sprawling, insides collapsing. The pain overcomes me, and the next thing I know I surge bolt upright. Two nurses grab at me, push me back down. I was brought to by something on a cloth, and it stings the inside of my nose.
I was the only one who couldn’t walk to recovery. I was wheeled in, dizzy and doubled over, my guts in a knot. My arm was tightened, a cold round circle put against the vein: 70 over 40, the nurse said, as though this were some personal failure of mine. I was white in Liz’s mirror when she drove me home. She left me here with four red tulips in a slender green vase, said to call her if I need anything.
Later I look at the pamphlet the gray-haired woman handed me on the sidewalk. There’s still time, she had said. She carried no signs, not like the protestors on TV, and I immediately found myself taking her side rather than mine. She tried to look me in the eyes, but I kept my head down, folded the pamphlet once, delicately, and put it into the side pocket of my purse. I knew better than to look at it before, but I torture myself afterward with the images: tiny fingers, tiny unformed heart, not a green curlicue sprout at all. A hatchling, a translucent curled-up little alien. How tenuous its grip on life, that just three minutes’ contact with a machine wrenched it loose, completely and forever.
The dream ends when I see this creature in bits—a tiny finger here, a doll’s foot there—floating in blood and flesh-colored food inside the take-out box. On the side of the box are printed in red calligraphic letters the words: YOU ARE BORN WITH GRACE & BEAUTY.
April Vázquez is the winner of the William Van Dyke Short Story Prize and Carve Magazine’s Prose & Poetry Contest and a Best of the Net, Orison Anthology award, and two-time Pushcart Prize nominee. Some of her writing can be found at https://aprilvazquez.wordpress.com.