Those who know me now will be surprised to learn that I was a great talker as a child. We have a home movie taken when I was two years old, no soundtrack, and by now the colors have bled out—a white sky, my red sneakers a ghostly pink—but you can still see how much I used to talk.
I’m doing a bit of landscaping, picking up one stone at a time from our gravel driveway, carrying it to a large tin washtub, dropping it in, and going back for the next. I’m working hard, but showily. I widen my eyes like a silent film star. I hold up a clear piece of quartz to be admired, put it in my mouth, stuff it into one cheek. My mother appears and removes it. She steps back out of the frame, but I’m speaking emphatically now—you can see this in my gestures—and she returns, drops the stone into the tub. The whole thing lasts about four minutes and I never stop talking.
I’m prettier as a child than I’ve turned out, towheaded back then and dolled up for the camera. My flyaway bangs are pasted down with water and held on one side by a rhinestone barrette shaped like a bow. Whenever I turn my head, the barrette blinks in the sunlight. My little hand sweeps over my tub of rocks. All this, I could be saying, all this will be yours someday.
Or something else entirely. The point of the movie isn’t the words themselves. What my parents valued was their extravagant abundance, their inexhaustible flow.
A few years later, Mom read us the old fairy tale in which two sisters return from the well speaking in flowers and jewels (the younger) or toads and snakes (the older.) The image in my head then was from this same movie, of my mother reaching into my mouth for the glassy stone, my words falling from my lips as gems.
Still, there were occasions on which I had to be stopped. When you think of two things to say, pick your favorite and only say that, my mother suggested once, as a tip to polite social behavior, and the rule was later modified to one in three. My father would come to my bedroom door each night to wish me happy dreams and I would speak without taking a breath, trying desperately to keep him in my room with only my voice. I would see his hand on the doorknob, the door beginning to swing shut. I have something to say! I’d tell him, and the door would stop midway.
Start in the middle then, he’d answer, a shadow with the hall light behind him, and tired in the evenings the way grown-ups are. The light would reflect in my bedroom window like a star you could wish on.
Skip the beginning. Start in the middle.
So the middle of my story comes in the winter of 1996. By then, we’d long since dwindled into the family that old home movie foreshadowed: me, my mother, and, unseen but evident behind the camera, my father. In 1996, ten years had passed since I’d last seen my brother, seventeen since my sister had disappeared. The middle of this story is all about their absence, though if I didn’t tell you so, you wouldn’t notice. By 1996, I was no longer at home myself. Weeks went by in which I hardly thought of them.
Always get the last word.
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Leap year. Year of the fire rat. President Clinton had just been re- elected; it would all end in tears. Kabul had fallen to the Taliban. The Siege of Sarajevo had ended. Charles had recently divorced Diana.
Hale-Bopp came swinging into our sky. Claims of a Saturn-like object in the comet’s wake first surfaced that November. Dolly, the cloned sheep, and Deep Blue, the chess playing computer program, were superstars. There was evidence of life on Mars. The Saturn-like object in Hale-Bopp’s tail was maybe an alien spaceship. In May of ’97, thirty-nine people would kill themselves as a prerequisite to climbing aboard.
Against this backdrop, how ordinary I look! In 1996, I was twenty- two years old, meandering through my fourth year at the University of California, at Davis, and still maybe only a junior or maybe a senior, but so thoroughly uninterested in the niceties of units or requirements that I wouldn’t be graduating anytime soon. I had no particular ambitions beyond being either widely admired or stealthily influential—I was torn between the two. It hardly mattered, as no major seemed to lead reliably to either.
My parents, who were still paying my expenses, found me aggravating. My mother was often aggravated those days. It was something new for her, analeptic doses of righteous aggravation. She was rejuvenated by it. She’d recently announced that she was through being translator and go-between for me and my father; he and I had hardly spoken since. I don’t remember minding. My father was a college professor himself and a pedant to the bone. Every exchange contained a lesson, like the pit in a cherry. To this day, the Socratic method makes me want to bite someone.
Autumn came suddenly that year, like a door opening. One morning I was bicycling to class when a large flock of Canada geese passed overhead. I couldn’t see them or much of anything else, but I heard the jazzy honking above me. There was a tule fog off the fields and I was wrapped inside it, pedaling through clouds. Tule fogs are not like other fogs, not spotty or drifting, but fixed and substantial. Probably anyone would have felt the risk of moving quickly through an unseen world, but as a child, I had a particular penchant for slapstick and mishap, so I took the full thrill from it.
I felt polished by the wet air and maybe just a little migratory myself, just a little wild. This meant I might flirt a bit in the library if I sat next to anyone flirtable or I might daydream in class. I often felt wild back then; I enjoyed the feeling, but nothing had ever come of it.
At lunchtime I grabbed something, probably grilled cheese, let’s say it was grilled cheese, in the school cafeteria. I was in the habit of leaving my books on the chair next to me where they could be quickly moved if someone interesting came by, but would discourage the uninteresting. At twenty-two I had the callowest possible definition of interesting and, by the measure of my own calipers, was far from interesting myself.
A couple was sitting at a table near me and the woman’s voice gradually rose to the point where I was forced to pay attention. “You want some fucking space?” she said. She was wearing a short blue T-shirt and a necklace with a glass pendant of an angelfish. Long, dark hair twisted messily down her back. She stood and cleared the table with one motion of her arm. She had beautiful biceps; I remember wishing I had arms like hers.
Dishes fell to the floor and shattered; catsup and cola spilled and mixed in the breakage. There must have been music in the background, because there’s always music in the background now, our whole lives soundtracked (and most of it too ironic to be random. I’m just saying.), but honestly I don’t remember. Maybe there was only a sweet silence and the spit of grease on the grill.
“How’s that?” the woman asked. “Don’t tell me to be quiet. I’m just making more space for you.” She pushed the table itself over, swung it to one side. “Better?” She raised her voice. “Can everyone please leave the room so my boyfriend has more space? He needs a fucking lot of space.” She slammed her chair down onto the pile of catsup and dishes. More sounds of breakage and a sudden waft of coffee.
The rest of us were frozen—forks halfway to our mouths, spoons dipped in our soups, the way people were found after the eruption of Vesuvius. “Don’t do this, baby,” the man said once, but she was doing it and he didn’t bother to repeat himself. She moved to another table, empty except for a tray with dirty dishes. There she methodically broke everything that could be broken, threw everything that could be thrown. A saltshaker spun across the floor to my foot.
A young man rose from his seat, telling her, with a slight stutter, to take a chill pill. She threw a spoon that bounced audibly off his forehead. “Don’t side with assholes,” she said. Her voice was very not chill.
He sank back, eyes wide. “I’m okay,” he assured the room at large, but he sounded unconvinced. And then surprised. “Holy shit! I’ve been assaulted!”
“This is just the shit I can’t take,” the woman’s boyfriend said. He was a big guy, with a thin face, loose jeans and a long coat. Nose like a knife. “You go ahead and tear it up, you psycho bitch. Just give me back the key to my place first.”
She swung another chair, missing my head by maybe four feet—I’m being charitable; it seemed like a lot less—striking my table and upsetting it. I grabbed my glass and plate. My books hit the floor with a loud slap. “Come and get it,” she told him.
It struck me as funny, a cook’s invitation over a pile of broken plates, and I laughed once, convulsively, a strange duck-like hoot that made everyone turn. And then I stopped laughing because it was no laughing matter, and everyone turned back. Through the glass walls I could see some people on the quad who’d noticed the commotion and were watching. A threesome on their way in for lunch had stopped short at the door.
“Don’t think I won’t.” He took a few steps in her direction. She scooped up a handful of catsup-stained sugar cubes and threw them.
“I’m finished,” he said. “We’re finished. I’m putting your shit in the hallway and I’m changing the locks.” He turned and she threw a glass that bounced off his ear. He missed a step, staggered, touched the spot with one hand, checked his fingers for blood. “You owe me for gas,” he said without looking back. “Mail it.” And he was gone.
There was a moment’s pause as the door closed. Then the woman turned on the rest of us. “What are you losers looking at?” She picked up one of the chairs and I couldn’t tell if she was going to put it back or throw it. I don’t think she’d decided.
A campus policeman arrived. He approached me cautiously, hand on his holster. Me! Standing above my toppled table and chair, still holding my harmless glass of milk and my plate with the harmless half-eaten grilled cheese sandwich. “Just put it down, honey,” he said, “and sit for a minute.” Put it down where? Sit where? Nothing in my vicinity was upright but me. “We can talk about this. You can tell me what’s going on. You’re not in any trouble yet.”
“Not her,” the woman behind the counter told him. She was a large woman, and old—maybe forty—with a beauty mark on her upper lip and eyeliner collecting in the corners of her eyes. You all act like you own the place, she’d said to me once, on another occasion, when I sent back a burger for more cooking. But you just come and go. You don’t even think how I’m the one who stays.
“The tall one,” she told the cop. She pointed, but he was paying no attention, so intent on me and whatever my next move would be.
“Calm down,” he said again, soft and friendly. “You’re not in any trouble yet.” He stepped forward, passing right by the woman with the braid and the chair. I saw her eyes behind his shoulder.
“Never a policeman when you need one,” she said to me. She smiled and it was a nice smile. Big white teeth. “No rest for the wicked.” She hoisted the chair over her head. “No soup for you!” She launched it away from me and the cop, toward the door. It landed on its back.
When the policeman turned to look, I dropped my plate and my fork. I honestly didn’t mean to. The fingers of my left hand just unclenched all of a sudden. The noise spun the cop back to me.
I was still holding my glass, half full of milk. I raised it a little, as if proposing a toast. “Don’t do it,” he said, a whole lot less friendly now. “I am so not playing around here. Don’t you fucking test me.”
And I threw the glass onto the floor. It broke and splashed milk over one of my shoes and up into my sock. I didn’t just let it go. I threw that glass down as hard as I could.