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I stood out of the way in the tack room as Grandpa raised two fingers to his mouth and forced air through the small crack between them. I winced at the volume of his whistle and then watched the horses come running in, the rumbling of their hooves shaking the ground. These were two of the loudest noises I had ever heard.
Then Grandpa had a stroke that paralyzed his left side. Months of therapy brought some movement back to his arm and leg. The physical therapist told him to talk to his limbs when they weren’t cooperating. He’d command, “Move, foot! Move!” but it fought him for every step.
Then he got cancer. After several months in the hospital Grandpa’s body betrayed him completely. He couldn’t get out of bed, and the tumors were causing him to lose his voice. It took all his strength to speak a few words. I held his hand, put my face close to his, and told him that I loved him and would see him the next time I visited.
“Love you too,” he whispered. I had never heard him speak so quietly. Three hours later he died.
As I was approaching my thirteenth birthday and bat mitzvah, I began whispering my most private feelings into a tape recorder.
I would slide aside one of the doors to my bedroom closet, push my shoes out of the way, and sit on the floor. Then I’d press the record button and quietly unleash all my anguish.
“I hate U.J.,” I’d hiss. “It is so gross the way he talks while he eats. Food-spit gets everywhere! Why does he have to be here all the time?”
“U.J.” stood for Uncle Jerry, who was not my uncle at all. Before my parents’ divorce he’d been my father’s best friend. That’s how I’d come to call him “Uncle.” His wife, “Aunt Diane,” was now his ex. I never saw her anymore. For the past two years Jerry had been my mother’s boyfriend. They never came right out and said they were a couple. Jerry was just at our house all the time, and my mother glowed in a way I’d never seen.
He didn’t sleep over, but when we rode in his brown Datsun hatchback, my mother caressed Jerry’s stick-shift hand and ran her fingers through his hair. And she whispered to him on the phone at night while she twirled her hair absentmindedly in the kitchen — a sexy whispering that made me want to run to my closet to quietly document this injustice.
Then one day I had to out myself: I had accidentally recorded over the tape of my father chanting my bat mitzvah Torah portion. A cantor, he’d made the tape for me to study from, as he did for all the thirteen-year-olds. I didn’t have my part memorized yet. I’d have to tell him what had happened.
In hindsight I suppose I could have just said that I’d recorded over it and refrained from mentioning with what. But I came clean. All those hours of whispering in my closet weren’t really helping anyway.
Rosendale, New York
“What’s up, baby girl?”
My hands are sweating, and my eyes water, but not because I’m crying. My muscles ache. My nose is running. Everything is very loud, very bright.
“Hold on,” I say into the phone, my voice low. I make this call every day, to this man or another just like him.
I peek into the bedroom and see my husband’s feet hanging off the edge of our bed. His breathing is steady. I slip smoothly out the back door.
“Hello? You there? I ain’t got all day.”
“Sorry, yeah.” I stand in our tiny backyard, in the corner farthest from the house, barefoot in knee-high weeds and grass. Scrap metal. Banana trees. Cat’s-claw vines. I’m scared of stepping on fire ants.
“Are you around?” I ask.
“Yeah, I’m around. What you need? You want me to come by?”
“No!” I look anxiously at the back door, then bite my nail. I’m like a nervous rodent. “No,” I say, softer now. “Not today. He’s home today.”
We arrange to meet around the corner in five minutes.
“Hey, look,” I say before hanging up. “I need you to front me a twenty bag. Just for an hour. I just need to go grab my money from work.” A lie. “I’m too sick to go anywhere.” This last part is true.
Silence. Then, “Psshh. Girl, you killing me. OK, just a twenty. You pay me back today.”
“Thanks. Thank you so much.” I’ve fallen in love with this man. I go back inside to put some shoes on.
It’s heroin. Again. Friends, parents, the love of my life — they all think it’s a part of my past. They applaud my strength, my courage. I was clean for about a year and a half. Long enough to meet a kind, good man. Long enough to earn his trust. Now it’s been two years of hiding places, excuses, whispering, and lies, so many lies, most of them to myself.
“Where are you going?”
It’s my husband, angel faced and sleepy eyed. The jingle of my keys has woken him. I’m still in pajama pants and a tank top with no bra, but I’ve pulled on a pair of cowboy boots and hidden my eyes behind dark sunglasses.
“Breakfast,” I say. “Shhh. I’ll be back in a sec.”
“OK, babe. Gimme a kiss.”
I cringe inwardly. I am a rat in a bassinet. I lean over and give him a peck on the cheek.
He wraps his arm around me playfully, drawing me back into bed. For a second I almost give in. Then my insides cramp, and I pull away.
“I won’t be gone long.”
And I leave him again for the man on the corner.
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