Blush Reflex

"Gemini" by Danielle Manton

“Gemini” by Danielle Manton

The youngest daughters grow up to be judges, sentence their stepmothers to rehab. Princes donate wolves to prison puppy programs. Mothers don’t worry about starvation; they worry about excess sugar. They live in gingerbread houses with underwater mortgages, clip coupons for buy-one-get-one boneless whatever. They file chapter thirteen with witches, who are lawyers – more overtaxed than wicked. When they need to dispose of their children, they don’t send them to the woods. They leave them in the car, the pool, the Walmart. They tell their children not to tell. Their children feed satellite signals to the stars.

#

The moral of the story isn’t your little dove.*

#

Once a fortune teller in a souvenir shop pierced my navel. I was thirteen in cutoffs; no one else would do it. She said I’d get infected. I met you thirteen failed inseminations later: handshake, charge, receipt. You looked like a fortune and promised results. Basement office with baby pictures on the ceiling. My wife produced a vial of frozen sperm she’d resurrected in her fist. You examined me, offered a cup of something you called Well-and-Good, suggested a different vial from a stash in your cupboard. Looked at me like I had no wife. Blood in a needle, light in my eyes. Close as a kiss with alcohol on your breath. You ran a hand over my torso and a tube into my uterus, gave the guarantee real doctors never give. I flinched and thought, Don’t flinch.

Later was like test results. The belly piercing, long since closed, erupted stretch marks that matched your scars exactly.

#

The moral of the story knocked at the door.

#

The mother pushed her kid through a window, or didn’t secure the screen.

The mother rolled on her baby, unbuckled in a hot car she was driving off the bridge to avoid having to sell them into sex work.

She was drunk/high/packing heat and prescription weight loss pills. She gave the kids three wishes. The minivan floated into the sunset.

#

The moral of the story can’t see very far.

#

I have a crush, I told my wife. A flutter, a flinch, a thought where the thought was not supposed to be. A grammatical error, an equation: where X was an utterance, then Y was a corresponding flush. I booked elective appointments, flirted in stirrups, half-dressed on white paper. When you called me honey, the word acquired density and its own orbit.

Blood flooded the surface. Where X was a reflex, then Y was a blush.

The babies on the ceiling judged me. You didn’t ask why my wife opted not to come. Your mouth was a tantrum, and mine a lit fuse. Here’s a touch, you said, but no warning next time. The atmosphere was strung with punctuation.

Shh without sound is a kiss. So hush. Where X is you, there is no Y.

#

The moral of the story is sure to taste sweet.

#

The mother dropped the baby and left the gate unlatched.

She left the scene and didn’t call 911.

She failed to respond/account/appear/thrive.

She left the children alone in the crib, in a car seat under the kitchen table, wrapped in blankets near the stove, with the addict boyfriend/babysitter/grandmother, while she went to the store for more pop.

#

The moral of the story will not forsake us.

#

I didn’t know the father, or the other, or where the Y was from, but I knew that what bloomed inside belonged to you. Infection, or a genetic tripwire. Suddenly there was pleasure in everything: the sexuality of napkins. Cleavage in a chicken breast. At the Super Buffet, I ordered a fruity cocktail served in a fishbowl with two straws, and I drunk-dialed your number. You knocked me up, I said, which means this guppy’s yours. You came with a car.

You came like confirmation. I mauled you in the lot, ringed finger twisted in your belt loops. Illness, anomaly, not my normal. What is a fetus but an index, a guide to yours and mine? Alien, aquatic, gills and a tail. What bloomed inside was the animal way of desire. You came and changed the scenery. The air around you thick for wolfing.

#

The moral of the story had not had a happy hour.

#

The mother was off her meds/rocker/high horse, but it was a wardrobe malfunction and she didn’t read the fine print. She set the baby down for just a minute, and when she returned he had grown up and was mad about it, he was emancipated and suing her for loss of innocence, he had tattoos of itemized lists and test results, and she dreamed that she woke up from the dream but when she woke up her baby still wasn’t there.

#

The moral of the story was made up with white sheets.

#

We met at the park where the pregnant cats lived in the live oaks. You scattered shrimp tails and crab shells, laughed and said they’d eat anything. You were equal parts sex appeal and rage, and I wondered how you ever got a job. The cats thunked to the ground, branches retracting, a bunch of used pregnancy tests stuck between the roots. Story problems that ended with plus or minus. The cats moved like they were caught in traps. You told me about your childhood in a way that made me ashamed, so I backed you against the tree and surrendered to what I wanted. Your hands searched for something like proof, and my body let slip the secret. I wanted your wanting. The cats somersaulted; the baby purred. You turned me over when I tried to look you in the eye. All of us licking problems we called wounds.

#

The moral of the story won’t get away.

#

The mother won’t return our calls and we are getting impatient/worried/litigious. We will fight for monogamy and custody. We’ll ask her to remove her jewelry and anything in her pockets. She’ll take off her nails and cleats, unscrew her teeth. Into the bin go oilcan and heart.

She should never have had children. We’ll serve her with papers, lock her out of the woods, banish her to home.

#

The moral of the story will come to get you.

#

I left the cold night for your cold apartment. Inside, a crime scene that hadn’t happened yet. I would be the chalk outline sprawled across the bed, my bones forming stories I didn’t know I was telling. The line between defense and desire so hard to call. What starving person won’t cross police tape to eat? Everything levitated. The naked things adorned themselves. The bare things trimmed each other, the lonely things rushed to prepare. Your body felt heavier than my two hearts. Your breath planted flag after flag. You operated me faster than common sense. The good part was when your words grew fingers and spread.

The romantic part was when I got in the bath, sad, and you climbed in after. Fully clothed with boots still on, half-floating, half-pinning me from above.

But later that night I had to call the cops on you. They stared at my belly and said I seemed like a nice lady.

No chalk. No one twisted in sheets, reaching for the door.

#

The moral of the story did no good.

#

She’ll lose the case/game/last ten pounds. She’ll see her children during visiting hours, under supervision. She’ll take parenting classes and get her degree. She’ll work two jobs to support her children/habit/ambition. If life gave her lemons, she’d eat lemons. But life never gives her lemons, so she buys them in bulk. Halves them, salts them, sucks out the juice.

#

The moral of the story dropped everything.

#

I woke my wife, kneeled at her bedside with wet pants: it’s time. She didn’t ask where I’d been, or where my car was. She helped me to hers and drove. The obligatory traffic. The story so familiar I don’t have to say how we almost didn’t make it. Say instead that the car broke down and I birthed the baby on a gas station floor, the attendant a fat man named Slim. Say that it was summer, and the cicadas had heated themselves to sparking. That it was you strapping on a mask and cutting the cord.

You’d done that, the week before. For someone else’s wife.

Say that, when it my time, you were sober. That I woke in bed, not on the floor. That you hadn’t hidden my keys and taken my phone so I wouldn’t do what I did, which was to go home first. Wake my wife.

Say that when I woke on the floor, still in my coat, I wanted to leave you far behind. Say that I didn’t know where you’d hidden my phone and keys.

Say that when it was my time, I didn’t kiss you goodbye in your sleep.

#

The moral of the story has put on enough weight.

#

The mother is all right, she’s fine, she’s great, and no she doesn’t need a break and no she doesn’t need a nap and no she doesn’t want a sandwich or coffee or vitamins and no she doesn’t want her prescription filled, sure she’s a little keyed up but that’s normal, given the situation, given the time of night and the amount of booze and the pepper spray she’s taken to carrying in her coat pocket, right next to the car keys, given the feeling that wells up and says fight when there’s no reason to fight, in the middle of the day while she’s nursing the baby and watching TV – a whole series on reptile attacks – she just needs a run/a dollar/a minute to herself, she just needs to rest her eyes, she just needs the baby to stop screaming, and no she doesn’t think of hurting herself, and no she doesn’t think of hurting anyone else, and no she’d never hurt the baby, of course not, but did you know that some reptiles eat their young, and what is that like, to swallow what you’ve birthed, to take it back, to undo what seems so done?

#

The moral of the story woke the children up.

#

My baby bore me into hunger. He came equipped with reflexes for rooting, sucking, tongue-thrust. I lacked instinct so they sent a lactation consultant. The feedings so painful they curled my toes, the colostrum’s path of pins and needles. My nipples looked chewed and I swore I felt teeth, but the lactation consultant pried open the slick silver of the baby’s mouth and showed me gums, like flexed muscle, unbroken. She dipped the pacifier in wine she called water, handed me the hospital list of meats and desserts, told me to hold my baby like a football. Nothing was as it seemed. Later I woke covered in pins which the lactation consultant said were for infertility. When I reminded her I’d just given birth, she shushed me and whispered, We need to change the ending. The next time I woke I was already pregnant again. Then a nurse wheeled my baby in, and then the nurse was you.

He has your mouth, I said.

#

The moral of the story was pitch dark.

#

The mother puts the keys in the ignition. Needle in her arm.

She doesn’t go quietly.

She leaves the mess for someone else.

#

The moral of the story fit into his jacket pocket.

#

You came with cake and daisies, talked APGAR scores with the nurse, made a display of professionalism. Slipped me my keys, no memory of why you had them. Survival depends upon forgetting. The residue pain of childbirth is nothing like the pain of childbirth, but it’s all we have left to feel. The body turns toward forgiveness. You took my hand under the sheet, and I let you. I asked for a slice of cake.

Or: the mouth isn’t good at knowing what’s good for it.

#

The moral of the story will come back to get you.

#

She left behind twin boys. A loving husband. No note.

Left chains of iron and dandelion. Chipped white plates. Rows of textbook remainders. A hive of startled bees.

The note would’ve said: there’s a roast in the oven.

The twin boys were found in the woods, each clutching half a plate.

#

The moral of the story will make a tasty morsel.

#

The neck straightens, the limbs flex. Still we swallow things we can’t stomach. We say bite your tongue. We say spit it out. A conversation can be a dish served on fire. I woke sweaty with a milk-soaked shirt on the edge of the blow-up bed in the spare room, wanting to talk to you. Wanting to be more than calories. Fever tasted like pennies, engorgement like ink. I dialed the breastfeeding hotline, and the ringing tasted like tea. I told the hotline that I had a problem with clogged ducts and recklessness. That I had an unhealthy appetite for things I couldn’t stomach. I’m trying to control myself, I said, but it’s not working. The hotline asked if I’d like to speak to a doctor. I heard the click, pictured the line being transferred to you.

Salt dough. Bergamot. Nectar.

#

The moral of the story is a fool.

#

The mother knew about the girls upstairs. She held the baby under. Left the family dog/pig/constrictor alone with the kids. Gave them sips/tokes/PINs. Left the handgun/car key where they could find it.

Refused the shot.

Did not properly install the car seat.

It was her responsibility to know the combination.

To know when to pull the plug/play dead/refuse the Koolaid.

#

The moral of the story wasn’t an ax.

#

The baby was a fertile land for contaminants. All milk-fat and mounded flesh, suckling yeast and heartbreak. I buttered skin, swabbed tooth buds, combed cradle cap. I hiked my shirt on the way to your apartment, drove with my knees, filled zipper bags with blue-green milk. The plastic suck, the nipple’s pathetic gasp. I do it so I won’t squirt when I get to you. I do it so I’ll have something to bring home after happy hour. I pump-n-dump so I don’t have to think about trace elements or blood content. You keep dead clams in your fridge, bodies pulsed out like tongues. Your tin cans are swollen as lips.

Botulism has no taste, nor paralytic poisoning, nor infidelity. You kiss where the baby has bitten, where the broken skin tastes sweet.

#

The moral of the story won’t get away.

#

Her children are obese. They curse and bite. They binge on fast food and can’t read. Their teeth rot. Their blood sugar is off the charts. They’re in the ground/branches/slammer. They live in motel rooms/gutted vans/hidden chambers. The police found three dozen cats in a single-litterbox home. Rust has eaten the pipes. The baby has a nasty diaper rash.

Mischief can be a group of rats; a wreck is just a collection of seabirds.

#

The moral of the story wept bitter tears.

#

At some point, I understood that things were what we called them. You weren’t troubled; you were a disaster. I wasn’t struggling; I was fucked. I called honey poison until the baby turned one, then I called it sweet. I called my mother/sister/wife and told her off. I called foul, called bluff, called the question. I called in sick. I was not like or as a storm; I hurricaned. I thundered. I was shot through with electricity. It was my body that determined the temperature of the room, and honey, that room was on fire. At some point, I started calling things exactly what they were.

#

The moral of the story did no good.

#

We say she’s ill. Brainwashed. Unfit. We say we don’t know how she could do it. We say, What kind of a mother? We say put her away. Good riddance. Better off without her. We say she seemed so nice. We say we didn’t see it coming.

We say ding dong, the witch is dead.

We say she needs help. We say someone should help her. We say social services and bootstraps. We say failure of the medical/educational/penal system. We say let down your long hair, why won’t you let down your long hair, what kind of a mother won’t let down her long hair?

We say take a bump/drink/bite. We say they’ll be fine. We say old enough. We say trust us. We say sign here. We say do what’s best. We say trust your instinct.

We say this apple/honey/peanut butter is poison until we say it’s not.

#

The moral of the story became more and more familiar.

#

Our last night, I was in your apartment before you were. Breath expelled from everywhere. I felt you watching from the corners, hair slicked and shirt tucked. Cigarette burns in the carpet, a shattered dish in the sink. The fucked-up upscale life to which you’d stopped committing. You said you were at work, but you stumbled home hours after quitting time with your pockets inside out and a bag of groceries. Dinner? You turned slurped chicken into a kiss. You held a red pepper like a heart ripe for slicing. I sat on your lap and sang, It took a long time to leave you, Loose Wheel That was when the credits should’ve rolled.

I told you I was getting divorced and had to go home. I left you a key to someone else’s house. The sun wouldn’t quit exploding. I stashed a hand pump in the glove box and drove miles of dirt roads. Here’s the thing: you and I saw hundreds of aquamarine lakes too cold to swim in. Here’s the other thing: I was far from home and getting farther. I was at that point where I wanted to separate what was buoyant from what wasn’t. I razored off my breasts and sailed them on the oily water. I sank my house key, then drove the long way toward morning.

#

The moral of the story was breaking.

#

She stores truckfuls of grief in her body. Proves it with scars. Keeps a box of photos and collection notices and custody agreements in her closet.

She’s changed her number and locks but we know where she lives and we’ll come in uniform with subpoenas and court orders and absolute conviction.

#

The moral of the story will point the way home.*

 

* All morals taken from the text of “Hansel and Gretel,” by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, translated for The Classic Fairytales by Maria Tatar.

 

By Kelly Magee

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s