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The Woman I Kept to Myself, Page 3

Julia Alvarez

while the writing I used as my excuse

  for my unhappiness was utter trash.

  In short, not a pretty picture to watch.

  And you, whose names I sometimes can’t recall,

  came out of nowhere with buckets and vans

  to help me move to the next rental,

  packing my books, my clothes, my manuscripts,

  storing my overspill in your garages.

  Some of you even let me stay with you

  on living-room couches, fold-away cots,

  telling me that old story: happiness

  is around the next corner, heroines

  were once sad women who got lucky.

  You were right! At long last, happiness arrived—

  a steady job, true love, a first novel.

  By then, you, my bad-weather friends, were gone,

  like thoughtful fairies in a Shakespeare play

  who having cleaned up after our mistakes

  tactfully vanish before the last act.

  Now in my own house sitting at my desk,

  looking out on a sunny autumn day,

  I hear a roll call in the wind of thanks,

  Zohreh, Jay, Greg, Judy, Marcela, Ann . . .


  I dream my sisters all gang up on me:

  they hold a secret meeting and decide

  to throw me out of the family, a vote

  they’re quick to point out is unanimous,

  stripping me of my rank of sisterhood

  for faults I’d rather not list—the gist being

  that I am undeserving (which is true),

  selfish, stinting, inclined to blurt things out,

  which now compels me to defend myself,

  using a phrase I read in a story

  that goes something like this: we are saved

  not because we are worthy but because

  we are loved, and not just automatically

  by God, who has to love us, but by kin

  who don’t. And so, my sisters’ rejection

  is like Adam’s expulsion, only worse,

  as he was promised future redemption,

  but what redeeming purpose can there be

  when my own sisters disinherit me?

  The night of my dream was not a good night.

  I wanted to call my sisters and find out

  if any such meeting had taken place

  behind my back. But it was past the hour

  when they would welcome phone calls. So I lay

  in darkness wondering what becomes of us

  when we’re beyond the pale of human love?

  How can we earn the love that can’t be earned

  or make someone respond the way we want?

  And lying there, I heard their voices call

  from deep reserves of love, Have faith, sister!


  We hardly get together anymore,

  now that we’re busy with our families.

  So, when my oldest sister calls to ask

  if she, her husband, son, and new puppy

  can come and visit, I say, “Yes, of course!

  —only you’ll have to leave the puppy home,”

  blaming my cats and husband for my no.

  She bristles at her end when I say so,

  who once took orders from her. The visit

  goes downhill from there: she accusing me

  of being anal, rigid, controlling:

  her mean shrink-talk, which I point out to her.

  Still, when my sister leaves I press my hand

  on her window, and she presses her hand

  from the inside, looking into my eyes,

  as if we were about to part for life,

  she to a foreign country where she’ll learn

  new words for the world that we once shared.

  Years hence, perhaps a great-grandson returns

  to see the place that meant the world to her.

  Already in this life, we’ve strayed away

  to husbands, puppies, the way she believes

  guests should be treated vs. my theories.

  “If you can call them theories,” she retorts.

  At night, I hear her remaking the bed

  the way she likes it, the sides not tucked in.

  And I recall how when we first arrived

  in this country, she’d yank her blankets loose

  and reach across the gulf between our beds

  to hold hands on those nights I was afraid.


  You are the bottom line, my love, the net

  that catches me each time I take a leap

  toward an absolute that isn’t there

  but appears dispersed in the relative:

  warm supper waiting when I get in late,

  my folded long johns on the laundry stack,

  the covers on my side turned sweetly down

  when finally I head upstairs from work

  that couldn’t wait till morning, the love note

  tucked in my suitcase for my night away.

  It says the obvious, the old clichés

  I wouldn’t want my friends to know we use

  for love. And god forbid my enemies

  should get hold of these endearments,

  so banal, I would lose my readers’ trust

  if someone published them under my name.

  But still as I write mine (with smiley face)

  and slip it under the pillow on your side,

  or when I read yours in a hotel room

  I feel more moved than by a Rilke poem

  or a Tolstoy novel or a Shakespeare play.

  My love grows stronger with the tried and true

  if it comes from you. More and more as we age

  and the golden boys peer out of the magazines

  with their sultry looks and their arched brows,

  I’m so relieved I’m not an ingénue

  searching for you at parties, singles bars.

  I have you, waving when my plane gets in,

  curling your body in the shape of mine,

  my love, my number one, my bottom line.


  We’re always fighting about household chores

  but with this twist: we fight to do the work:

  both wanting to fix dinner, mow the lawn,

  haul the recycling boxes to the truck,

  or wash the dishes when our guests depart.

  I don’t mean little spats, I mean real fights,

  banged doors and harsh words over the soapsuds.

  You did it last night! No fair, you shopped!

  The feast spoils while we argue portions—

  both so afraid of taking advantage.

  But love should be unbalanced, a circus clown

  carrying a tower of cups and saucers

  who slips on a banana peel and lands

  with every cup still full of hot coffee—

  well, almost every cup. A field of seeds

  pushing their green hopes through the frozen earth

  to what might be spring or a springlike day

  midwinter. Love ignores neat measures,

  the waves leave ragged wet marks on the shore,

  autumn lights one more fire in the maples.

  Tonight, you say you’re making our dinner

  and won’t let me so much as stir the sauce.

  I march up to my study in a huff.

  The oven buzzer sounds, the smells waft up

  of something good I try hard to ignore

  while I cook up my paper concoction.

  Finally, you call me down to your chef d’oeuvre:

  a three-course meal! I hand you mine, this poem.

  Briefly, the scales balance between us:

  food for the body, nurture for the soul.


  Our fights, they last for days, not the fighting

  but that long aftermath when neither one

  wants to g
o first over the muddy waters

  of reconciliation, waters churned up

  by fears and jealousies we can’t control,

  bad weathers of the soul that sweep through us

  leaving us both like those grim survivors

  of natural disasters on TV

  recounting numbly over and over,

  “I never thought . . . next thing I knew . . .”

  All happy families, Leo Tolstoy wrote,

  are alike, but each unhappy family

  is unhappy in its own unhappy way.

  I’d rather be like everybody else,

  humdrum and glad, tending my happy lot,

  than standing in an open field littered

  with what was once our house, the newscaster

  probing with tactless questions in the hopes

  we’ll break down with our own unique

  unhappiness before the camera.

  Days after, we’re still feeling the effects,

  lights aren’t back yet, the road’s impassable,

  the world mined with betrayals left and right.

  Meanwhile in the back rooms of the heart

  we count by flickering gas-lamp what is left—

  not much when put in piles of yours and mine.

  Outside the rivers overflow their banks

  and thunder through our lives so we can’t hear,

  for all our righteousness, the other’s cry,

  perhaps of reassurance, perhaps good-bye.


  I hear my husband on the phone downstairs,

  not the exact words just a certain tone

  that’s wafting upstairs—and right off I know,

  he’s talking to his mother by the way

  his voice relaxes, spreads like soft butter

  on fresh bread. When he’s done, I hurry down

  as if to get a taste of him still warm

  with mother love. So different from the tone

  of tightened purse strings when his ex-wife calls.

  I stay upstairs, not wanting to be pulled in.

  Or his daughters call, and his voice skips stones

  across the pond of longing that wells up

  after a week of not speaking with them.

  From bed, I hear him sweet-talking the cat—

  no words, just the same coaxing murmuring

  he’s humming in my ear when we make love.

  Me and the cats! I could be doing worse.

  Or the clipped tone he uses to cut off

  a telemarketer at supper time;

  or a request to fund a dubious cause;

  or the military yes-sir, no-sir tone

  with which he passes information on

  to people he dislikes; finally, the oh

  so charming tone he dotes on my mother,

  as if he has to prove himself worthy

  to marry me. But we’re already wed,

  flesh and bone, so all I have to hear

  is the vibration of his voice downstairs

  and instantly I know what he’s feeling

  as if I felt that same feeling myself.


  My husband has given away my hairbands

  in my dream to the young women he works with,

  my black velvet, my mauve, my patent leather one,

  the olive band with the magenta rose

  whose paper petals crumple in the drawer,

  the flowered crepe, the felt with a rickrack

  of vines, the twined mock-tortoise shells.

  He says I do not need them, I’ve cut my hair,

  so it no longer falls in my eyes when I read,

  or when we are making love and I bend over him.

  But no, I tell him, you do not understand,

  I want my hairbands even if I don’t need them.

  These are the trophies of my maidenhood,

  the satin dress with buttons down the back,

  the scented box with the scalloped photographs.

  This is my wild-haired girlhood dazzled with stories

  of love, the romantic heroine with the pale, operatic face

  who throws herself on the train tracks of men’s arms.

  These are the chastened girl-selves I gave up

  to become the woman who could be married to you.

  But every once in a while, I pull them out

  of my dresser drawer and touch them to my cheek,

  worn velvet and faded silk, mi tesoro, mi juventud—

  which my husband has passed on to the young women

  who hold for him the promise of who I was.

  And in my dream I weep real tears that wake me up

  to my husband sleeping beside me that deep sleep

  that makes me tremble thinking of what is coming.

  And I slip out of bed to check they are still mine,

  my crumpled rose, my mauve, my black hairbands.


  I love to see men coming out of holes:

  manholes and sewer drains and train tunnels,

  or down the poles of firehouses, the gong

  going like crazy, a dozen heroes

  in the making. Through the bedroom window

  comes the housepainter to touch up my sills,

  a college boy, naked from the waist up,

  who talks of Nietzsche between drying coats;

  or hauled up from my well the dowser calls,

  “There’s water!” as he dabs his sweaty face.

  I’m known to gawk at men in coveralls,

  jackhammering themselves into the earth,

  then rising out of rubble like the dead.

  Or the bell-ringing priest, pulling the ropes,

  then descending through the steeple trapdoor,

  one of God’s discard angels without wings.

  Perhaps it’s their fragility I love:

  that moment when they’re caught in no-man’s land,

  plummeting through the dark, then coming back,

  smiling, unscathed, with their hardhats still on,

  no time to think of conquest, empires, women,

  the makes of cars, the best in mutual funds,

  who won the Super Bowl. No, they’re knee deep

  or more in circumstance: The mainline broke!

  There’s trouble in the bowels of the earth

  that needs urgent fixing! When they emerge,

  shaken by what they’ve seen, tears in their eyes

  at disasters and deaths averted—that’s when

  I love them most—when they remind me of

  that moment when their mothers gave them life.


  Preparing for the Pico Duarte climb

  with only one-half of a packing mule

  allotted to personal belongings,

  I had to choose between Bishop and Frost.

  Frost would be perfect for the dialogue

  I planned to have with nature, but Bishop

  was addressing a similar landscape

  in her Brazil poems. I weighed back and forth,

  considering leaving a second pair

  of hiking shoes or my long underwear.

  Finally—I hate to say it—but I chose

  solely in terms of weight: the paperback

  Frost was lighter, smaller than Bishop,

  and would fit in my jacket pocket if

  the mule got tired and had to be relieved.

  This choice led me to think of how canons

  are formed, how books are chosen as the texts

  to be carried down the generations.

  Why Pound and not H.D.? And why, oh why,

  Sir So-and-So and not more Sor Juana?

  I’d like to think the basis for the choice

  was on some better principle than mine,

  but who knows? Especially when I peruse

  my old Norton anthologies and note

  the shameful absence of certain voices,

  I wonder if they never existed

  or if they were knocked out of the running

  for some silliness like the writer’s sex?

  Perhaps those who selected were like me

  who let an ass choose my mountain canon.


  First off, we can start with Eve, who misbehaved,

  taking a bite of the forbidden fruit,

  a woman not afraid to risk God’s ire

  or Adam’s blame to know good from evil.

  Or Lot’s wife—does she even have a name?

  who suffered death because she chose to turn.

  Oh, so to love the sight of what she loves—

  the red roof on her house, her line of wash—

  that she gave up salvation for a glimpse.

  My kind of woman: bold and curious.

  I like the quiet, pensive ones as well:

  Mary, so often praised for the wrong things:

  her humbleness, her sweet docility,

  her loving parenting of Jesus Christ,

  instead of her most worthy quality:

  her Buddhist calm in the face of shocking news—

  that she was pregnant with the son of God!

  She didn’t balk or ask to be excused

  or worry what her parents were going to think.

  My kind of virgin, guilt- and fancy-free!

  Speaking of virgins, I’ll end with Joan of Arc.

  How many smart young women wouldn’t want

  to cut their hair and bind their breasts and roam

  far from their fathers’ houses on their own,

  making the world safer for womankind?

  I see a theme: smart ladies with big mouths,

  on whom nothing is lost, big-hearted gals.

  Husbands, priests, daddies, bosses, sultans, dons,

  choose for your chattel the pliant, docile ones.

  My kind of women aren’t the ones you want.


  Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic

  In the museo, the Taino queen,

  Anacaona, has my sister’s eyes.

  And Duarte in the portrait where he’s barred

  from his beloved patria wears the scowl

  my father wore in exile. Sánchez’s nose

  is replicated on my tía’s face;

  her sugar-cane skin matches Salomé’s.

  Mella is pouting with my mother’s mouth.