Consider the thin, crackly, wrapping paper skin of the onion, as I did this morning while cleaning out the refrigerator. It's like any explanation I can offer him -- totally superfluous. He'll only hear that word, way down the end of any sentence. Orgy.
"Here -- in my own house?"
In your own house, and bed, and living room, and wife, and kitchen ...
I begin each time with why, with fragile excuses covering more fragile excuses like umber onionskin: transparent, flaking loose under pressure ...
Why clean out the refrigerator?
It was a long chain of events, to be sure. First, there was the heat, the incredible, globed Indian-summer air that pressed up to my face and settled down on top of my body like a confident lover, forcing itself into my brain with warm gloved fingers, pressing away my dreams, layer by layer, until I was close to morning, nearly awake. I could hear someone shuffling down the hall and the cars going swish, swish, back and forth, in the dark inky rain. When I opened my eyes there was no rain, only stabbing Dracula-bright sun, and the sound of Toby opening the refrigerator and clinking bottles and glasses in the kitchen, trying to find something to drink. When I turned to see what time it was, I felt my head splinter with a starburst of pain, and I closed my eyes and held still so I would stay in one piece on the pillow. My head was a mosaic, a broken eggshell, held by an invisible membrane that you shouldn't press too hard -- like Maggie's windshield after the rock hit it last night.
I tried to climb back into the dream, but it was as futile as trying to fit back into my wedding gown, so I pulled the crazy quilt up around my legs and drifted on the edge of things for another ten minutes. Then there was a loud crash from the kitchen as I stepped off a deep dream curb and fell back into the bed, ripping the quilt as I stumbled in my bare feet. I pulled the quilt off my foot and the roily memories from last night came crowding in. Hairy, naked thighs were slapping against vanilla-pudding thighs, and then there was a new swishing sound from the kitchen, so I had to leave the thighs rubbing under the quilt and go feed and clean this gaping mouth of a morning before I could get back to reconstructing the orgy.
Thank God for a job! I could hear Toby beginning to cry now because he had scared himself with the crash, and it's easy, once you're needed, to lower your horizon until you're in a long, low tunnel which you simply scrub through to the end, keeping your mind only on the job at hand. That way, I could walk past the wrecked living room without looking in, move smoothly past it all and not touch it. It looked as if a movie set had been struck in there, so much equipment and fantasy were waiting and still. Angular piles of dirty glasses, game pieces, napkin puffs, and fallen pillows all crawled toward the doorway at me, and I knew I could ignore it for a little while longer if I cleaned something else instead.
Toby had tried to pour a leftover quart of whiskey sours over the mouth of a shot glass he had found on the kitchen counter. When the glass tipped over in the streaming yellow waterfall, he hid it in the refrigerator, where he knocked over the orange juice that had been pushed behind all the leftover bottles of beer on the shelf. And now he was crying, screaming, and the first thing I had to do was to stop the noise throbbing against the weak glass of my eyes, so I unwrapped a triangle of Laughing Cow cheese that someone had stuck in the telephone book and wedged it into his mouth. He clamped down on it, surprised, and smiled around its wet edges as I lifted him into his high chair.
My bare feet sucked off the sticky linoleum each time I walked back to the sink to rinse the orange-juice-soaked rag in clear water, and I began to enjoy the big mess once I saw its dimensions completely. Standing in the middle of it made it less scary than it had sounded from the bedroom, more like a Truth or Consequences game show stunt once I was here in the kitchen. The sun glinted off a lake of orange juice that puddled under the shot glass on the cutting board and dribbled slowly over the front of the counter, drop by drop, into the silverware drawer.
"Who did you sleep with?"
Under the counter it ran, a bloated yellow tributary snaking across my green embossed floor ...
"With more than one guy?"
It was all over the front of the stove, freckled in little round bumps on the legs of the telephone table, souring the water in the cat's dish. It even splashed up the dress of one of Maggie's angels.
"Two at the same time?"
Now, stickiness, like grease, is invisible, after the fact. You must clean by touch, rather than by sight ...
"Where, where did you do it?"
Wipe, and touch for tacky, slimy, gritty, or slick -- it's quite a mess, getting even stickier in the heat -- you can feel it even if you can't see it. What's worse, it's also all over the inside of the refrigerator, all over the food, in the plate of ham, filmed over the two raw chickens, in the vegetable bins ...
Finally, he would have to ask why.
Which brings me to the onions, swimming in a yellow pool of cold orange juice in the bottom of the refrigerator: Carmen Miranda onions, rolling back and forth against the rotting apples and bananas in this cold metal bin. We're having a heat wave, a tropical heat wave. And the deep banana fragrance flitters up in waves off the metal sides of the big airplane that ticks in the Puerto Rican sun, and now the honeymoon is finally over. Toby castanets his spoon against the metal tray of his highchair, and life could be so beautiful if I hadn't done this terrible thing last night. Sweet innocent baby! Poor innocent husband, flying home to me right this very minute, as unaware of any orgy as he's unaware of the dark swarmy cities crawling below the gentle cloud cover out his airplane window. He's still innocent, cradled up there in the heavens, and now I'm not -- I'm down here among all the broken pieces of our marriage contract. This is the worst thing I've ever done, and I don't even believe in confession any more.
So, I'll clean the refrigerator, my alter ego, instead. God knows, I felt more violated when the person from Michigan that Maggie invited pushed his six-pack of Michelob onto my clean milk shelf than when he later pushed his ...
Ah, ah, ah -- no dirty thoughts! No dirty thoughts -- I'm cleaning the refrigerator. The problem is that when you've just had an experience, details play and replay in your mind, fresh and unobstructed, whether you want them to or not. They gambol about and linger like little children, pressing up close to you, innocent of any moral tags, until you consciously get up there and discriminate, push some aside, hide a few, and keep the others. And besides, I'll wear out all the good ones if I allow them casual access. I figure each scene has one gutwrenching, stomach-strumming pang of recognition, and then two or three warm washes of wallowing before it becomes stale, used up, unable to excite me any more. The best part of all this is the fakir's basket of snakes I've now got stored away in my memory, just waiting to be summoned up, up; to writhe back and forth in my brain like these wilted carrots curling over the old tan cauliflower here in the vegetable bin.
It's all here in the vegetable bin, the secret of life. All I have to do is to find the little devil. "Is it you, you slimy celery? Come up here out of the orange juice and talk to me -- tell me what I should do about this mess." But the rotting tops shrink and flatten, cling back against my hand: the green seaweed fingers are taciturn and lifeless, secreting no watery answers.
This job is endless, because my refrigerator, like my brain, is stuffed with garbage. I've got ideas from Maggie going stale next to failed, uneaten casseroles. Useless tidbits from the Ladies' Home Journal are stuffed in the corners with the baking soda, and untouched remains of memories from Aunt Ruth are rotting in their sealed containers. I am past the point of opening some of them and I can see through the sides that the stuff in there is now frosted over with green mold, fuzzy on the top, slimy like an oyster on the bottom. If you want to know someone, just open her refrigerator, and there's her personality, all spread out. I know I'm right: the real person is in there with the telltale chewed cheese, the optimistic yogurt, or the squishy lazy cap on the bottle of catsup. If someone cared enough to examine your refrigerator, she'd know what you know about yourself. After all, it's true what the Salada tea bags say: "You are what you are only when no one is looking."
Well, my refrigerator is always full because I grew up poor and I've always hated to cook, so I'm afraid to throw things away or to be without a great supply of food for emergencies. The two chickens I bought a week ago for tonight's dinner are still in there, tightly wrapped in Saran, crowded together in naked intimacy on their plastic tray, already going bad in the heat. I was planning to cook them as a special welcome-home dinner for Jack, who says he makes enough money for me to stay home and raise our two children properly.
I hate that word, "properly." Also, "promptly," and "prepare," and "moisten." I hate being told what to do, even by printed directions, especially by recipes. And I hate to cook chicken because of the jelly goo that coagulates under it on the dish when it cools. Once I cooked a chicken neck because I felt guilty for throwing so many of them away, and when I broke it up for the skimpy pieces of meat on it, I found a boiled white worm inside. The poor chicken was killed before he even swallowed his last meal. And I hate the veins on chicken -- rubber bands on the drumstick that look like little o's after you bite into them. I hate to cook it, I hate to eat it -- I hate this suspense, this constant waiting for Jack to come home.
But I can still do something nice with this dinner in spite of the orange juice. I just have to wash the chickens off to get rid of the slimy feeling and that slightly sweet or slightly sour odor that spreads off them when I peel the plastic film and separate their legs, their thighs, their breasts from one another. You have to quiet a lot of sensible squeamishness before you can cook or have sex. I dread sticking my fingers deep into them under the running water, but you have to feel for the organs, the little paper package with a tiny play heart, the sore-looking little kidneys and liver, and the thing that must be part of the neck that gave us Sylvia Plath's most famous simile, the one about the first time she saw her boyfriend's penis and thought it looked like a turkey neck. Of course, my aunt always cooked these things in a small pot of water, leaving the most desperate scum for me to scrub away from the sides of the pot -- a miniature bathtub ring made of rubber cement. So I always throw the little bag out unopened.
However, to throw the bloody organs away does not necessarily mean I will be done with them. No, my aunt will be picking blackly through my garbage later, making small clucking noises, telling me I waste too much, I will burn in Purgatory for the clean pieces of paper I throw away, kill off a few starving babies in China for the food, and send us all to the poorhouse one day for using Saran Wrap, ScotTowels, and, God help us, Handi-Wipes. Disposables! The cheap and quiet servants of poor people -- they could be the symbol of my liberation, according to Maggie, who lives down the street.
"Go out and buy the stupid stuff, live with it, get used to the convenience -- and the guilt will go away when you throw it all out with the garbage," she said, the last time she was packing. And as I carried home a box of her stuff to store in my hall closet, she shouted after me, "You'll wonder how you ever lived without paper towels in the house!"
Now, my aunt never throws anything away. You remember the one kid who brought her lunch to school in a Sunbeam bread bag? It was me. I never had a paper napkin the whole time I went to school. I eat very neatly, still. Maggie told me I should go out and buy some fabric softener, air freshener, Brillo pads, and individual packages of Cup-a-Soup at the store. But my aunt muttered and moaned all the way through the market, held me by the coat sleeve, and repeated her litany of money-saving household hints: "You take the clothes right offa the line and shake them out, hard, then you won't need no fabric softener. Don't use so much soap, they won't be so stiff, don't leave them on the line overnight -- then they'll smell good. Open the windows if you want fresh air. What are you, crazy? Buying a can of air? Soak the dirty pans overnight, use a little elbow grease and nylon net, and here -- soup bones are cheap, ends of vegetables are cheap, how do you think we made ends meet? Don't throw nothing out -- don't be such a spendthrift -- one of these days you'll be hungry. You'll be looking through your own garbage for what you need. Who do you think you are, anyway?"
Or something to that effect. And I have to admit that I do wish I had the courage to roll the shopping cart over her ripped and mended black shoe just to stop the words, but of course I can't, because the poor old woman is dead. She's been dead for over a year, probably turned to ashes in the grave by now, the closest she's ever been to dirt. There is a gritty thumbprint of her on the inside of my forehead to remind me how I am permanently connected to her and to the Lenten dust forever under my bed. So I hear her talking all the time, even though she is out of place in a neighborhood as fancy as this one is. "You're on the bed for a few years, and then you're the dust, and under it forever," she used to say, pushing a clicking dust mop ahead of her on the linoleum, making it come alive at the corners of the room, wriggling over the baseboards, sniffing under the radiators. Her ashes have more potency now than fancy Colombian espresso to spring to bitter dark life, wherever and whenever she wants, staining the present.
"Who do you think you are?" Maggie recently asked me in a playful tone, while crossing her legs and dangling one sandaled foot over the Persian carpet in her kitchen. I watched her painted toes peep like graded cherries from under the leather lattice of her sandal, and of course, I thought of Aunt Ruth's big black thumbnail, dead from a factory accident before I ever knew her. The industrial sewing machine needle had stitched right through her thumb, and she even had to put the machine into reverse and turn one more stitch back into her thumb to free her finger before she could get to the nurse's station. The nurse told her she was really lucky not to have lost the whole thumb, considering. My aunt said she watched the fingernail blacken and die, but still stay on her thumb, held by the white thread that had dried to a deep purple-red from her blood.
I once told Maggie that I could answer the question "What are you?" but not "Who are you?" I think this is pretty interesting.
"So what?" she asked.
"A wife, a mother, an orphan."
"An orphan! That's so romantic! Who were your real parents?"
"Aunt Ruth's second-youngest sister and no one knows who."
"What happened to them?"
"Neat! Let's try it again: What?"
"An ingrate, a frigid wife."
"That's no good. Try this: How do you see yourself?"
I had to think for a while. Too long, actually, for Maggie, who left without finishing her tea. But I see myself as a Modigliani head in the refrigerator handle, a chrome exclamation point. I read somewhere that Johnny Carson's second wife had her wedding ring melted down into the shape of a hard teardrop so she would remember her marriage, and Aunt Ruth used to say, "All you ever do is read." Maggie says I don't have enough experiences in life to really enjoy myself, and Jack says the purpose of life is in accepting responsibility, not in enjoyment. Who's to say who's right?
So when I'm in doubt, I always wash the dishes -- it is a job I can do quite well, and it always seems to set things right again. The house settles down when Mother washes the dishes, because once the water starts running, everyone knows where she'll be for an hour or so; taking care of things, making it pretty in the kitchen again, allowing the next day to come cleanly and unencumbered. The orgy can be gone! What power we women have -- setting the world to rights again ... and it feels so good, too ... my wrists in cold rinse water on this sticky hot day, the refrigerator nearly clean except for the vegetable bin, Jack flying home -- except for the orgy. Merely by cleaning up a mess, mistakes can be thrown out, washed away, forgotten. Salada says, "The person who never makes a mistake must get pretty tired of doing nothing," and I agree with this thought today. I mean, how was I to know if I really am frigid or not unless I put it to the ultimate test of a drunken orgy: anonymous, dark, with all my fantasies laid end to end? I rationalize: The refrigerator looks clean if you don't open the bottom drawer, and I look clean if I don't open my mouth.
But we all know it's dirty, don't we, Aunt Ruth? Maggie keeps telling me to uncover my feelings, to clean up and dig out and to bring to the surface, and I will, I will, I will tell him. I'll tell him everything! Details -- the truth! I hate all these lies! And I'll throw all these rotting vegetables away, upend the vegetable bin into the sink, and wash it out once and for all.
Which is what I did for the rest of the morning. The job took longer than expected because those frivolous, skimpy onion skins, which I thought superfluous, proved instead to be indomitable, glued by the orange juice in fibrous stripes and crisscrosses all over the metal bottom of the bin, speaking to me in stubborn, squeaky, vegetable hieroglyphics.
Because I was lonely?
Because I wanted to see if I really was frigid?
Because I wanted a disposable experience?
Because I really am black and spoiled rotten on the inside?
Or maybe all of the above?
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