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All we know of love, p.1
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       All We Know of Love, p.1

           Nora Raleigh Baskin
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All We Know of Love

  The bus tires thump over the road, which sounds like a pencil tapping rhythmically, which sounds like a heart beating slowly, which reminds me of something I can’t quite shut my brain to, but makes me tired all the same. I look in the scratched mirror above the tiny metal sink and I see my reflection.

  It is blurry, as if I am looking at myself underwater.

  I am nearly at the end of a twenty-four-hour journey in search of something that, after all this time, I didn’t realize I was looking for. But I know now, I am riding as much away from something as I am toward it. These things, these comings and goings, this ending and beginning, must be connected, like the completion of a sentence. Like the answer to a riddle, or a dream, in which all the people are really you.

  Because there is a need to hear one story and to tell another.

  My mother was telling me something just before she left for good, taking nothing with her (as far as we could tell). Leaving behind everything she had ever bought, everything she had ever wanted, everything she owned or had ever been given.

  And everything she had made: a lopsided clay bowl with the image of a tiny painted pineapple from her ceramic workshop days, a collage of family pictures cut in various sizes and shapes, pasted together and framed. She spent weeks on that. All the pressed wildflowers she had collected and laminated between sheets of clear plastic to last forever. And me.

  Me, she left behind.

  She walked out mid-sentence, before she finished what she was about to say.

  It was a long time ago already, four years. Four years, four months, and fifteen days to be exact. And for four years, four months, and twelve days, I didn’t think for one second about what she never finished telling me. I gave no thought at all to her unfinished sentence. I suppose it is like being in a car accident. You don’t think about something as trivial as the conversation you were having at the moment of impact. Not until weeks later, if at all. It comes to you in daydream one day as you are remembering the crash, that awful crumbling-metal noise, and if you begin to reconstruct the instant at all, it may not be for months, or in my case, years.

  At first all I cared about was that she was gone. I wrote her letters. I made her Mother’s Day gifts. When she had been gone sixteen months and seven days, I sewed her an orange dinosaur pillow in FACs class. I cried at night, and at sad TV shows, and, for some unknown reason, during first-aid filmstrips shown in gym class on rainy days. And then I stopped. Because all things need to come to an end. Good things and bad things.

  But then just recently I started to remember and I began to reconstruct. And wonder: if only I had let her say what it was she was about to tell me, would everything have been different? Would I be in this situation?

  My mother stopped mid-sentence. She was in mid-thought, about to tell me something.

  She was talking about love.

  At the Stamford bus station, there is a little newsstand with chips and candy and gum, stuff like that. I should load up on snacks, I am thinking. I don’t have anything I am going to need, except money, and not that much of that. The ticket was a hundred and twenty-six dollars, one way. When I called a few days ago to get the schedule, I found out how expensive the trip would be, and how long it would take. Twenty-four hours on a bus. I can’t imagine that. I’ll need some stuff to eat and drink, I guess. I should have made myself something at home, a sandwich or two, but I didn’t think of it.

  It’s early. Way early, especially for a Saturday morning. It’s not even seven thirty. And this kid working behind the newsstand isn’t paying attention; he’s reading a book. I’ve been standing here for a while. Sometimes the world reminds me of how invisible I am.

  My dad tells me it’s because my voice is too quiet, even when I’m shouting. He says it’s loud enough, but the timbre’s too soft, as if it were at a different frequency, like there’s something wrong with it and nobody hears me.

  “Excuse me,” I say again, a second time. The boy who works at this newsstand is at that age. Not young, not old, so I don’t know how to address him, to get his attention. Mister? Kid?

  Hey, you seems rude.

  “Hello there,” I try. “Sir?”


  How stupid is that?

  He looks up and smiles, like I just made a joke, when joking is the furthest thing from my mind. He is annoying me already.

  “What can I get you?” he says. He lowers his book. I see he is wearing an orange T-shirt so faded its softness is almost visible. He hikes his jeans up over his skinny hips as he steps up to the counter. I see he is wearing a rope necklace around his neck, with one white shell that sits right in that spot, that little dip in a boy’s neck that always seems a little too intimate to be looking at.

  “Um . . . I’m not sure,” I say, looking over everything, which all looks really unhealthy and fairly sickening.

  “Stuff for your trip?” he asks me.

  “Yeah.” I nod. My trip.

  “Where are you going?”

  And when he asks me that, I know I am going to lie even before I open my mouth. Like I am trying it on for size, testing out my abilities.

  “North Dakota,” I say.

  “North Dakota, huh?” He smiles.

  This guy is flirting with me, I think. I used to like this, but ever since Adam flirting has taken on a whole new meaning. In a way, it’s like I know what it means now. I know what can happen, and I don’t know what I want from it anymore.

  “That’s a pretty long trip,” he says.

  I want to smile back, but suddenly I feel a wave of nausea. Maybe from looking at the candy, or from this older man, who comes up beside me and reeks of cigarettes. Or maybe it’s something else entirely that scares me even more.

  “Forget it,” I say quickly to the boy. “I don’t want anything.”

  And I hurry away.

  At least this is one of those big buses, the kind you get for really long, expensive school field trips. The kind with upholstered seats and little TV screens every few rows. But the screens are blank. So far the seat next to me is empty. I am doing a silent prayer that it stays this way all the way to Florida.

  It is such a long trip to be sitting next to someone you don’t know, maybe someone awful. Someone fat. Every time a passenger walks down the aisle and then passes me by, I think I am that much closer to sitting alone. I am resting my head on the window, making it as hard as possible for someone to catch my eye.

  So far so good.

  The bus hisses and lurches forward. When we hit the highway, the sun is fully risen and on its way to completing another cycle, another day.

  I make it all the way to New York City this way. Port Authority Bus Terminal, the driver announces. We have a half an hour wait here. We sit in our tall seats as the bus idles. The smoke from the exhaust blows up and across my window like a miniature H-bomb. The bus shakes as it idles, but I am grateful for the heat. I suppose it must be cold out. It’s February. It was freezing when I slipped out of my house this morning, but we are in an underground terminal system of some kind. As the bus looped its way from the outside world into this subterranean one, a long line of overhead fluorescent lines became the sky. The gray of concrete has never seemed so oppressive to me before, or so final.

  Although I suppose if I wanted, I could still get off here.

  I am not that far from home. I’m in New York. Big deal. I feel my legs start to move before my brain tells them to. I am about to stand, maybe get off the bus. It’s like a twitching in my muscles, separate from my thoughts but maybe with more common sense.

  But now all of a sudden people start getting on the bus, and again I am doing my soundless please-let-me-sit-alone invocation. The chances seem slimmer. The bus is filling up quickly.
Still, somehow I am sitting by myself when the driver finishes putting the luggage away underneath and heaves himself up the steps and into his seat. Then just as he pulls the doors shut, the last passenger shuffles down the aisle toward me. She is a big woman with two big bags in her hands. One is some kind of massive tapestry pocketbook and the other a clear plastic bag of knitting paraphernalia. There is a needle threatening to poke out the bottom of the plastic one. Her bags move before her as if they are individual people unto themselves, and all three stop directly at my seat.

  I lift my head from the window for a second, not too much so it looks like I want to say hello or anything, just enough to see who she is.

  She sits down next to me.

  Her skin is the color of coffee beans before they are ground, and shiny like that. She’s pretty fat, too. She has knee-high stockings on that pinch the skin just below her knees, which I see when she plops that plastic bag onto her lap, and it makes her floral-patterned housedress rise up a little. She has on sandals, and her toes are painted a bright fuchsia. The tan mesh of her stockings dulls the color, but I can still see it. Sin City Pink, I imagine. Or Mango Tango.

  I plop my head against the seat back and close my eyes. The bus is beginning to move, so if I had any plans to jump off and not go through with this, it’s too late now. This is when I notice that I have had my cell phone clutched in my hand since Stamford. It has nearly come alive with a power of its own, a life force beyond its battery and cell-tower capabilities. It is my connection, my constant accessibility, because Adam might call. Because any moment of any minute, he could call.

  And if Adam should call —

  If he should call —

  If he should call, I will be right here to feel the phone vibrate even before it rings.

  I hold the phone and rest my head against the window and keep my eyes closed so I don’t have to talk to the lady next to me. She has that look, like someone who likes to care about other people for no reason at all.

  I hate that.

  If I think really hard, I am pretty sure I remember my mother was doing the dinner dishes that evening. Her soapy hands were dipping in and out of the water, soft white bubbles stuck on the backs of her skinny wrists. My mother always shut off the water while she was washing and turned it on again to rinse. She hated to waste. Hated to use things up that didn’t have to be, like squirting out more liquid soap than needed or taking two napkins when one would do. She folded and reused paper bags and even plastic bags. She was always telling me not to flush the toilet every time. There was no need to waste water and electricity.

  That’s disgusting and I’d flush anyway. Every time.

  She officially objected to wrapping paper. She flat out refused to buy it. I’d show up at elementary-school birthday parties with my gift packaged in either wrinkled recycled wrapping paper or, worse, the Sunday funnies from the newspaper.

  She turned the lights off whenever she left a room. Only turned on what she needed, so in winter our house sat in quiet darkness, illuminated in only one or two small areas. She unplugged the toaster and the coffee machine because she read somewhere they can drain a measurable amount of electricity even when they are not in use.

  And when she did the dishes, she’d fill the sink with water, washing each dish and letting it sit. Then she’d turn the tap back on and rinse, efficiently turning each plate or cup or bowl over in her hands, running it under the stream of water and setting it on the rack on the counter.

  It’s been over four years, and it is still her hands I remember best. Her long fingers, and the raised veins that wove across the backs of her hands in geometric shapes. To this day I always look at a woman’s hands and see beauty in long bony fingers, blue-veined skin, and short clean nails. A woman’s hands. My mother hated her hands. She said they looked old, while I thought my mother’s hands were beautiful.

  Yes, I remember now we were in the kitchen.

  She was talking to me and I was eating my dessert. But I wasn’t happy, was I? They were the wrong cookies. I was in the mood for something chocolaty. She had given me oatmeal-raisin cookies and a glass of milk.

  She just started talking. “I think I had it all wrong, Natalie. You know, my mother just gave me the worst advice. . . . You know, Nana. But it stuck with me.”

  My mother was facing the sink, so my last memories of her are of her back and her hands and the sound of splashing water and her voice. Some part of me knew that she was very upset. I knew she was crying. But a bigger part of me didn’t want to hear it or see it.

  I wanted different cookies. Chocolate cookies.

  So I was just waiting for a pause in her monologue, when I could ask her if I could open a new box of cookies. It was a risk, I knew. My mother didn’t like to open a new box until the old one was finished. She didn’t like having things that didn’t get completely used up, that would go stale and thus be wasted.

  But I wanted chocolate cookies. Wasn’t it a waste to eat something you didn’t really want? Isn’t that a waste, too?

  I didn’t like the look of her shoulders hunched over the sink, shaking. The deliberate movement of her arms reaching over and placing dish after dish in the draining rack. She was still talking, her voice quivering.

  “I don’t ever want to give you that kind of advice. . . .”

  But I wasn’t listening anymore. Her words turned into some kind of gibberish, some other language I couldn’t understand and so didn’t have to listen to. A grown-up language I wasn’t supposed to hear. The more desperate she became, the more I wanted those chocolate cookies. I knew there were some in the pantry. I had seen them. I was sure.

  I was just waiting for my moment to ask.

  “There’s something I want to tell you, Natty. . . .”

  I already had a whole convincing argument ready for why opening a new box of cookies would make sense, be ultimately less wasteful. Just imagine my genius.

  But my mother went on. “I mean, Natalie, I want to tell you. I think you should understand this about —”

  Our voices collided and hers was swallowed up like beach sand under the tide. “Mom?”

  “— about love.”

  I stopped her cold. “I want chocolate cookies.”

  She turned from the sink and looked right at me. Her eyes were swollen, even redder than I was expecting. Her face was wet, and her nose and her chin. She reached out with her hands because they were soapy and she couldn’t wipe her eyes. She held them out as if she didn’t know what else to do with them.

  “I mean, Mom? Can I open the chocolate cookies? I saw some in the pantry. I know the oatmeal cookies aren’t finished . . . but can I?”

  I began to list my really good reasons, but I didn’t have to.

  “Sure, sweetie,” my mother said. Her voice was strange.

  I remember she walked over to the table where I was sitting and took the half-empty package of oatmeal-raisin cookies. Then she stepped right over to our new trash can with its flip top. When we bought it I thought it was really cool. My mom stepped on the foot lever.

  My heart stopped beating.

  I was flooded with the sense that I had done something wrong. Very wrong.

  I watched as my mother dropped the entire package of cookies into the garbage. Then she took the chocolate cookies from the pantry and placed them before me.

  “Do you have enough milk?” she asked calmly. Her tears had dried, but her face still looked blotchy and awful.

  I nodded, wide-eyed and fearful.

  And she left.

  She took her coat from the peg by the door. She jangled her keys in her pocket, and she stepped out quietly into the night.

  When I was in fifth grade, about ten or eleven years old, just about a year before my mother decided to jump ship, bail out, skip town and never come back again, I had a very specific idea about who I was going to fall in love with. It never occurred to me then that he might not fall in love with me in return.

  Such a thing as an Ada
m was beyond my imagining.

  Such a thing as the agony that love brings had never entered my mind. Before Adam, love was a happy ending, like an episode of Full House. Or the kind of book your grandmother gives you.

  We even had a list, my friend Sarah and I. I mean, a real list. Written down. On paper.

  We would add to it whenever we got together, whenever we had a sleepover. It was an official rule. You packed your toothbrush, your hairbrush, lip gloss, pajamas, your favorite stuffed animal, and the list. The list traveled back and forth between our houses that entire year.

  “I’ve got a new one,” Sarah told me. Her out-of-breath voice betrayed her excitement. This would be a good one.

  We were already in our pajamas. Sarah’s mother had dragged out a futon, two pillows, sheets, two huge comforters and let us sleep in the front room: the den, with the TV, the DVD player, and the computer. We had spent most of the night IM-ing and the rest of the night watching the movie we had rented. It was now dark and quiet; the rest of the household had long since gone to bed. That was another rule. Writing on the list must be the last thing we did before we went to sleep, when we were too tired to do anything else, so thoughts of our true love would be our last thoughts before sleep and therefore penetrate our dreams.

  That way, they would one day come true.

  “OK, I’m ready,” I said. I had had the list at my house, and now I took it out of my backpack and carefully unfolded it. The paper was threatening to break apart at the folds. It hung limp and I had to support it from the underside on my open palm.

  “Read,” Sarah commanded.

  I began. We had eleven written requirements for our true love so far. I would read each one, and then Sarah would present her latest. Then we would vote. If we both agreed, it would then be added to the list. So far only one suggestion had been voted off: He must be handsome.

  We argued about this for a while. It had been my suggestion at first, but when it went up for a vote, ironically, I was the one who lobbied against it. I convinced Sarah that handsome was in the eye of the beholder, so to speak. That if you love someone, he is automatically handsome to you. Sarah argued that you needed to find someone attractive before you could fall in love with him. Not if you are of pure heart, I came back with. In the end, it was Beauty and the Beast, which we had both seen on Broadway, that ultimately settled things. Handsome didn’t make the list, not in that form exactly.

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