The Woman I Kept to Myself, Page 3Julia 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.
MY BOTTOM LINE
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.
MY KIND OF WOMAN
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.
MUSEO DEL HOMBRE
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.