Symbiosis

Symbiosis

Symbiosis 1920 853 Hillary Jo Foreman

The turtle-woman drifts off first. Her eyelids sag shut. Abandana slips backward on her greasy scalp. In her uncurled fingers rest strands of my hair, strung pillow-to-pillow. Her breath lengthens, kisses my cheek. If I’d known she was coming, I would have made my side of the bed. The other side is always neat, the pillows propped one against another against the headboard. I haven’t had a bedmate since, still eight months from eighteen, I abandoned my mother. Or was it she who left me? Either way, it’s the turtle-woman who’s here now.

#

Back when we still shared a bed, Mother worked a sort-of third shift at the casino, some nights longer than others. Often, by the time she came home, I would have been tented under our comforter for an hour or three already, writing in my journal to stay awake.

Every night, as if never not taken aback by me, she said, “You’re still up?”

She crawled into bed, smelling salty, her skin streaked like raw meat.

Instead of answering her question, I said, “Do you want to hear a story?”

She rolled over and closed her eyes instead of answering, but I whispered my words to her anyway, after she fell asleep, always too tired to listen. I was sure my stories tinted her dreams syrup-blue, conjured snow cones and playground swings in her dark.

“Mary Verge asked Austin Lod to meet her under the slide at recess today. She was going to tell him that she likes him. Like-likes him. But Austin’s ears fell off in his sleep last night! He showed me earlier at the water fountain. In their place, little caves sparkled in the sides of his head. Mary opened her mouth to tell him her secret and he started singing. Braying, more like, since he couldn’t hear himself. A song about his mind, a treasure trove.” I whispered my whisper: “Like a fucking Disney movie!”

Mother was always the fucking casino this, my goddamn clients that. It was good money, she told me one time, when the clients came, but it was dirty money, too. Nothing she’d ever see me doing, did I understand?

I hadn’t really, not then, but I nodded as if she made perfect sense.

#

So little makes sense when I’m half asleep like this. Daylight blinks through the side yard crabapple’s leaves, colors unchanged though it’s nearly November. They cast a greenish glow onto the turtle-woman’s face. Under the blanket, her backpack makes her enormous. A boulder that does not break the bedframe, somehow. I’d crawl around and remove her shoes if I didn’t think it would wake her. Not that I mind her shoes in my bed. I want her to be comfortable, to remember this sleep, to come back sometime and hope to repeat it.

#

Earlier today—or was it yesterday?—I spent my lunch hour in the bank’s break room like always. I opened my journal and my sandwich-sized Ziploc. I wrote something like I usually write: The table seems bare with all these empty chairs, but the flies sit where they feast.

Only one fly joined me, but one was enough. It landed on the crust of one triangle and watched me watch it partake. I turned my journal’s page.

“How are you?” I asked.

The fly hopped from the bread to the book where, already, words were written (had written themselves?) across the top of the new page. Make more friends.

“You’re my friend, aren’t you?”

I reached for my half of the sandwich, and the fly lifted. I bit one clammy bite. The fly returned. I tried to checkmark the notebook line, but the pen wouldn’t ink, so I traced the indent again, again harder, until the dry pen wore through the page. I slammed the notebook.Thefly flew away.

I used to complain about lunchtimes in grade school, when I ate alone on the gymnasium floor. Mother liked to say, “Did you share?”

“I tried, Mother,” I answered, sorrow hot on my cheeks. “It wasn’t enough.”

#

Like always, the neighbor lady sat bathrobe-clad on her porch when I returned from work. She swayed forward and back as if her chair really rocked. I waved.

She wagged her crooked finger.“You bring me back my banana bread!”

“Good to see you!”

I took my journal inside. My kitten heels clicked, uncertain as strays after the long day. At the end of the hall, my bedroom, my very own nightstand, my very own drawers. That stubborn little table was the first thing I purchased after I left Mother’s bed. Even before the loaf of bread, the one-way bus ticket.

I spent much of that first night stalking around the 24-hour flea market beside the truck stop. Most of the booths were closed by that hour, but the aisles hummed. Fluorescent lights. Tired drivers. They assumed I was a seller of sorts, still in pink pajama shorts and a flannel button-up, no bra. When they stared, I said, “Can I help you?” When they chuckled and rubbed the silver stubble on their chins as if in thought, I said, “I’m looking for a nightstand. Not what you’re thinking. The kind with drawers.”

I’d tried to sandpaper smooth the table I found that night, but the drawer still caught. I tugged its pull, and it sighed, breath stale. I nestled my journal in the splintery jaw.

#

I only opened Mother’s nightstand drawer, her drawer, one time. I was in junior high, hoping for some evidence of my father—a dog tag or a lacy I love you scrawled on a postcard, something honorable. I found, instead, a pair of ballerina shoes, satin wrinkled like newborn skin, twins ribboned together in the otherwise empty cradle. I wanted to touch them, lace them up my calves and stand in the mirror, tall on the block-toed stilts. To look like Mother must have. But I knew Mother would know if I touched them—those slippers more secret than the negligées strung from our bedpost. She wouldn’t want me to touch them, to look like her any more than I already did. Blond waves, amber irises. We had long, pianist fingers though neither she nor I could play. I pushed the drawer back in—the slippers unworn, unspun—left its lips parted like Mother often did.

#

I needed to walk after work, get some air. I considered changing clothes, something black since my fly friend would be belly-up on the windowsill by lunchtime tomorrow, but I liked my outfit. Canary yellow crewneck sweater, plain pencil skirt, pantyhose. I traded kitten heels for sneakers and started along the side of the road.A sidewalk would emerge eventually, deeper into the neighborhood, nearer the cul-de-sacs and cookie cutters. Until then, I balanced on the curb’s curved edge like a child or a squirrel. Hill Street curved to the next, and my feet followed one after another along the narrow ridge.

I spent my childhood in the narrow apartment above Buy-the-Slice—a carry-out pizza place just as shitty as it sounds—and bounced between motel rooms and mobile homes while I finished my GED. How nice to live those last ten years in a real neighborhood. SUVs rested in driveways. Retired couples manicured front lawns. Children drew with logs of colored chalk—stick-girls in triangular dresses and stick-boys with spiked hairdos. Birch teardrops rattled yellow down the road. When bare, the neighborhood trees looked more like hands than trees—woody wrists twisted through the earth, spindly fingers grasping at sky.

Next thing I knew I was falling like a leaf. One step fine, the next unmet. I tumbled down the dandelioned ditch. My ankle turned. White seed wishes ascended as I rolled. I stopped at the bottom in a trough of runoff water. I wiped the broth from my eyes. Ahead of me, a line of trees stood together, as if at the start of a race.

They seemed friendly enough, so I said, “May I play?”

The wind ruffled the tangled branches. They shook a shivery laugh. Red Rover, Red Rover.

I had never been strong enough in grade school to break the wall of chanting classmates. Child-me bounced backward, added tears and grass stains to my only pair of jeans.

“Please,” I said. “Not this game.”

“I know what you mean,” said a voice thatrang and rattled like loose change.

“Who’s there?”

A stick snapped, and I screamed. I wormed from the water as the trees marched forward. My ankle ached. My wet skirt stuck between my thighs like a tail.

Out from beneath the trees’ shadowed feet, a creature crawled forward. A woman or a turtle, I couldn’t tell. A woman like a turtle? A turtle like a woman? Her long claws speared the forest’s litter. She wore a hoodie and a vest. She wore black tights under a rust-stained skirt. Strapped across her shoulders like a backpack, she carried a shell stuffed full. A green bandana balded her head.

“What are you?” I wanted to touch her shell, see if she was real, see if she could heal me.

The turtle-woman laughed. “This isn’t Wonderland, Hon. I’m nothing special.” A cracked teacup grin carved wrinkles around her eyes and mouth. The moonlight grinned too, curved along her shell’s reflective collar. “What about you?”

“I’m a teller,” I said.

“Of fortunes?”

I shrugged. “Sort of. At the bank.”

She nodded. “Is that what you wanted to be?”

No one had asked me a question like that since I was a little girl. What do you want to be when you grow up? my teachers asked. My answers had been a princess, a writer, my mother.

It must have been one of my first memories—Mother confining me to the bathmat while she bathed. I pined over the tub’s edge like Juliet, Mother my Romeo. All but the summit of her breasts were bearded by bubbles. The water smelled dark, like cinnamon, like Mother. She let me undress too, and I knew from her slow sinking into the steam that, physically, we were almost the same. But my chest was still two-dimensional—a pale pink plane tipped slightly pinker. Mother’s budded like spring branches, and I wished, secretly, every time she popped the clasp behind her back to loose them, that a brownish rose would have bloomed from each rich mound. Mother called them Nipples. How silly! I thought. Like skipping rocks and pond ripples, pirate ships and backflips. Kindergarten had only just begun teaching me to rhyme.

“Mother.” I reached to touch her shiny, squared toenails. “When will I get those?”

“What’s that, dear?” Her eyes were closed, head tipped back against the mildewed wall.

I slid along the tub’s edge toward Mother’s head like a curtain.

“Ah.” She exhumed her hand to squeeze my finger, yearning toward her breasts as if I were still an infant. “They’ll come, baby. All of a sudden. And you’ll be happy and sad at the same time.”

#

The turtle-woman said, “Are you lost?”

My house stood somewhere. Where, I couldn’t say. Had I hit my head? My fingers hunted goose eggs across my scalp, came back hungry. I bowed to see my reflection, but the oily swamp swirled my features like a funhouse mirror.

“I think so,” I said.

“But you’d know yours if you saw it?”

“Yes.” The turtle-woman’s eyes reminded me of Mother’s vanity mirror, spotted dull black where the silver backing had worn from under the glass. “I think so.”

“I can help you?” said the turtle-woman, and I nodded.

She struggled onto two legs, smoothed her hands over her clothes as if that would iron away their lumps. She had to lean forward so far to offset the weight on her back I thought she might as well return to all fours. She offered her clawed hand.

Together, we slogged back, feet soggy, calves smeared sludgy. Wet leaf scraps stuck to our shins like birthmarks. We stopped to loose them at the top. Glass and gravel peppered the road’s edges, so we kept to the middle until a sidewalk emerged.

Cicada song resounded through the neighborhood. Our feet tried to keep time as the sidewalk curved. Broader yards separated bigger houses. Bright playground sets peeked over privacy fences. We watched a girl wave from the top of a slide. Her chin and the chest of her flower-print dress dripped popsicle-red. She slid, squealing.

I said, “Do you live near here?”

“In that ditch.” The turtle-woman tipped her head back the way we came. “A country mansion compared to the place I had before. Downtown, between the courthouse and that fancy gift shop. I used to sleep against the side of a dumpster.”

“I knew you looked familiar,” I said. “My bank is across the street.” I’d seen her sitting at the edge of that alley, had dropped her a dollar or two. “You dressed differently then.”

“I’ve picked some things up along the way. A new backpack.” She patted her shell.

“You had a girl.”

The turtle-woman kicked a pebble into the street.

“My daughter,” she said.

She stopped. Out of her back pocket she pulled a pink crew sock. She put it on like a mitten, wormed her finger through the heel’s frayed hole.

“She moved in with her boyfriend. She was only thirteen. I should have…But I thought with winter coming—”

She pressed its ankle to her nose and mine. It smelled crumbly and warm. How long had she carried it?

“Her favorite color was chalkboard green,” she said.

“Just-erased?”

“Dust never really goes away.”

I nodded. I knew.

“So you have children, too?” She started again, her socked hand pulled up like an injured paw.

I shook my head. “I had a mother.”

“What happened to her?”

“She stopped coming home at night. I was in high school. I helped pay the bills with my part-time job, and I think she thought I was better than her because of it.”

I told the turtle-woman about the nightstand, how Mother’s neglect dressed it in dust. She was tired, she said. She did enough. When I offered to help, she told me to keep my perfect little fingers on my own messes, so the dust collected. It came off on my notebooks and clothes. It tinged my dreams less black and white than soft, peppery. It sunk to the bottom of my chamomile mug, and I gagged on the fuzzy dredges.

“May I tell you the story?” I asked the turtle-woman.

“Please,” she said.

“There was this one evening. I had just finished the eleventh grade. A boy had kissed me for the first time. Donny McClure, slouched in our seat on the bus. He was almost as unpopular as me and twice as shy, but just before the bus stopped at his corner, he sandwiched my cheeks between his palms and puckered his lips into mine. He whispered me a good summer and shouldered his messenger bag. He darted down the bus aisle.The back of his neck shined brighter than the stop sign, already folding up as the bus moved on.

“I didn’t know how to feel about it, the kiss, and I hoped Mother would come home that evening. She’d already been gone three nights, sleeping god knows where. I thought, if I could tell her, she would understand how I felt. Who else could I tell if not her?

“It was already after midnight when I rolled onto my side to pluck my journal from her bottom drawer. On the nightstand beside me, dust rose and fell like a plague in the lamp’s halo. I closed my eyes, covered my face with my hands, captured my body under a blanket. But the glimmer danced even in the dark. I stuck one finger out from under the comforter and dragged it through the nightstand’s dustylining.”I laughed. Two tears splatted at my feet. “It fell apart so easily! I left, and I’ve never tried to find her, and she’s never found me. So I know—”I held up one finger. “Dust never goes away.”

The turtle-woman shielded my finger with her sock-covered hand as if it were a candle she could keep from going out. It was harder to walk like this, but we persisted as the neighborhood smoke persisted in our noses—cut grass and charcoal and laundry detergent.

Above the sidewalks and scrappy sycamore branches, the low white sun rose opposite the low white moon. Between, the dawn folded like construction paper. We pressed the bends permanent, and the inky color faded onto our fingers. The night shrank to a kite, a knife. The turtle-woman and I emergedfrom sidewalk to street to my weed-striped driveway. The front door was unlocked. We staggered through the dark hall to my half-made bed and fell under the comforter, too tired not to touch. Flat palms and leathery knees. Chapped lips to chin.

#

The turtle-woman drifted off, but I remain awake, remembering.

If I could, I would stay beside the turtle-woman, and, at the same time, rise, blink a photo of this moment to keep. I’d paste it into my journal on the page opposite this other picture I have—a page torn from a National Geographic the last time I went to the dentist. In it, a gazelle stares over its left shoulder like da Vinci’s Cecilia, listening to some unseen speaker. A diamond of silk laces antler to antler, and, a black spider rests at the center, enjoying, like god, the work of its many hands.

I wish I had a photo of Mother and I in our bed. So many of those nights have slipped from my memory. I keep my favorite behind glass. My first tooth had been wiggly a while, but I’d been careful not to tongue it, afraid of what might happen if it came detached. I broke food with my fingers, chewed with my molars. But then, just before Mother came home, I lost it anyway, in the spotted meat of an over-ripe banana of all things. I held the tooth in my fist and waited for Mother.

I must have looked guilty.

She smiled. “What’d you do this time?” Her voice lilted, teasing. A good mood—unusual. Under the hem of a Metallica t-shirt, her bare legs sparkled.

Already, I had imagined this telling a hundred times. I lifted my lip, exposed the miss. She burst into laughter and I into tears.

“I didn’t mean to,” I sobbed.

She wrapped her arm around me, pulled both of us to the middle of the bed.

“Baby, baby,” she hushed me. “It’s supposed to happen this way. Your girl teeth fall out so your woman teeth have room to grow.”

I sniffled. Mother smelled like the microwave.

“What happens to the girl teeth?”

“Well,” Shecast her gaze to the lamplit ceiling. “A fairy comes while we’re sound asleep and picks them up and takes them to a secret place where every girl’s teeth are kept. Then, if anything ever happens to you, I’ll call her, and she’ll bring them back here. She’ll help me carve little holes in the ground, and I’ll tuck them in one-by-one.”

“And I’ll grow again?” The idea amazed me.

“Someone like you.” She smudged makeup from the corners of her eyes. “It won’t be quite the same as this.” She squeezed me, and I laughed. “But she’ll have your smile.”

#

A tear streaks my temple. To the ceiling I whisper, “I miss you, Mother.”

Beside me, the turtle-woman whistles in her sleep, as if in response. A tuneless rhythm as predictable and still as unpredictable as the tides. Perhaps she dreams of oceans, children, roiling and laughing. Sandy socks get hampered together. Sparkling slate water breaks and runs, retracts. Children dig for treasure, strike a sea star. They shriek. Finders keepers! They taunt and whine. Hide spiral shells under tongue like loosed teeth.

Header photography © Kip Harris.

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