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  • Kim Idol

Conversations with Hard Hearted Girls



 Diantha toddled over and tried to pet Sydney who skittered underneath the table. I didn’t know who Diantha was of course. The fact that Sydney was frightened of her was no indication that she was a threat. Sydney was frightened of everybody. “Pretty dog,” Diantha signed, her fat baby fingers forming the words as fast as she could think, I think.

“How old is she?” I asked her grandfather, a lean man with a jagged face. Burdened with the stroller and baby bag, he had lost hold of Diantha who had scooted through the crowd towards Sydney and me.

“Sixteen months.” He wrapped an arm around the girl’s waist and pulled her off Sydney. Diantha alternately squirmed in her grandfather’s arms and commanded him, in signs, to release her so that she could charge the pit bull melding with my leg. “No Diantha, strange dog.” And the pit bull, betraying her heritage, bolted to the length of her leash.

“Can she hear?” I asked.

“Oh sure, babies develop motor skills faster than they learn to talk, so we taught her to sign.” When her grandfather refused to let loose, Diantha began signing the word “release” again and again and when her grandfather ignored her, she turned around in his arms and put her head against his chest and stared at Sydney.

“Bigger than a cat,” she signed to me.

 

“Life is bigger than you,” is what my sister had said. She would have known better than most. My memory of her is not what you might expect. I think I missed her funeral. I didn’t know she’d been ill until it was too late to visit, or to mend the rift. Anyway, I didn’t have the vocabulary and Caity wouldn’t have had the heart.

I learned she was sick during the course of an interminable visit with my grandmother. We were sitting on her moldering ottomans, sipping cranberry juice because she wouldn’t let me make coffee, and the answering machine picked up.

“We’re so sorry to hear about Caity,” was all they said, followed by the usual “Our prayers are with you,” and all that Catholic bull. I looked at my grandmother to see if she’d heard and she hadn’t. Her hearing was for shit and even during the days when it was better, my grandmother favored studied ignorance over interaction. She could walk by a beheading and not remember it the next time you asked. If I inquired about the message, I would be unearthing the past. I would be admitting that I didn’t belong anymore to that pack of fools some call family.

“What’s wrong with Caity then?”

“She’s dying, girl,” my grandmother said. “Picked something up and is dying.”

Little sisters don’t die. Not even ones you don’t like.

 

Babies look the same to me. Different shapes of fat. Weak necked wonders that are cute as long as they belong to someone else and vanish when they become annoying. Diantha was annoying Sydney who now was no longer afraid, but was tired of being poked. The baby reminded me of Caity, and in its presence I was overwhelmed with memories that breezed through me faster than Diantha could sign, “release.”

 

My family, a long line of farmers, believed in large families. Children were cheaper than hired hands. My grandparents worked their farms until they died. My parents worked their parents’ farms until they left home. But after that, everyone got jobs in Los Angeles or New York and no one was going back to High Point, North Carolina, because they all hated working in the dirt and shuffling through muck. And yet, there were fourteen children in my family, if you counted Rachel, who died in her first year. If you litter, the littermates become less attached to one another as the numbers mount. I was in the middle. Siblings weren’t family, they were competition. The older ones enjoyed freedoms I envied and the younger ones needed constant attention. We were a pack, not a family. I never had any use for the boys, they never grew up. They tossed presents in the gutter when someone didn’t wake them in time for Christmas and shredded brand new suits if they got dirty. You had to wake them for school, drive them to appointments and, occasionally, collect them from the security office when they tried to rip off the local 7-11. The girls were angry and aged fast, but they were funny, sometimes, and never needed all the coddling.

Caitlin Moira Thomas, was my littlest sister. Four years younger, she was born with a deformity. She grew up in back braces, shiny exoskeletons that we draped in lace and frills so that no one would pity my mother’s youngest child.

“It’s what comes from having babies when you’re in your late forties,” I said to my mother when I thought it would hurt the most.

“Ah, Nora,” she replied. “When you do die and head fer them pearly gates, be sure to tell them you shit on your mother when ya could.”

“I don’t know why I said that, Ma. I’m sorry.” I’d been washing dinner dishes and it wasn’t my turn. And I was just old enough to say mean things without fully realizing their impact on a woman who deserved my respect.

“Yes, child you are.” She swung the door shut leaving me with the dishes. My mother, a woman prone to long angry silences, claimed she never held a grudge. But how can you bite your tongue if you’re not still pissed? Ma was always tired and was never done choring. She had left the farm, but not the habit of constant work. I can’t say that I ever knew her well. I was a diligent worker, but not a star. She liked Caity better, to tell the truth. Caity had a brightness to her.

Caity didn’t sign as a baby, she didn’t cry either. The brace forced her to lie on her back; a dangerous posture for a baby. Ma said that I slept on the floor near Caity’s crib with my hand on her arm. I think I figured that if she was warm, she was alive. Once Caity got old enough to walk she became a sleepwalker, made it to the curb more than once.

“Whatcha doin’ Caity?” my dad would call to her from the front door.

“Goin out Daddy,” she said. She’d be shivering in the darkness and standing with her back to the traffic.

“In your nightie? Will you come in for a jacket at least?”

“Okay Dad,” she’d reply. “But then I need to get.”

“Sure, sure,” he’d reply. Then he would walk outside and carry her back to bed on his shoulders. I was never sure if she remembered the night before or if she was playing games. Either way it seemed as if she had places to go that she could not name, trips to take that didn’t include the rest of us.

She had charm and a knack for making people do stupid things. She barreled from disaster to disaster, mostly other people’s disasters. When our brother Steven was thirteen, she convinced Grandmother to give him the keys to her car. Grandmother was working on a fifth of scotch and a royal flush at the time. I’m not certain she did anything but get rid of a pestering child. When Steven veered off a curving decline into someone’s living room, no one thought to ask whether Caity had known what she was doing. Caity couldn’t stop laughing when she told the story. She best remembered poised forks and stunned expressions, white washed in the brilliant glare of the Thunderbird’s headlights. She told Thomas that he would float to the ground if he jumped off the roof with a bed sheet. Single story house, just a broken leg. Emily set all three of her stuffed poodles on fire after Caity told her flame retardant meant inflammable. Children have to test those kinds of truths. Not certain how bright my siblings were as a whole? Me either. But Caity had talent, a way for making the outlandish seem reasonable.

She was a pretty girl who could wield words like throwing stars. She’d draw you in with pretty and then devein your heart with a finely turned phrase. Knowledge of the human psyche was her forte.

“It’s like hunting mice with a flame thrower,” she said, of our peers. “I can’t help it, weakness just brings out my best material.”

“You don’t feel sorry for them?” I asked.

“I don’t feel anything for them,” she replied.

Is it leprosy where you can’t feel your hands? I once read that some victims cut and burn themselves trying to locate nerve endings that still worked. I think it was like that for Caity. She didn’t feel compassion and noticing the lack, went looking for a way to contact it. But like a mad scientist, she only created victims and enemies while she searched in every wrong place.

I learned to fight because of Caitlin. I was a boy type, kind of stocky, like a block of wood. It wasn’t that I was such a good fighter, but I could take a punch and once I lost my temper I was all in until someone knocked me down. If Caity was vicious, I was belligerent and she was my job.

“You see things too simply,” she once said to me.

“I’m not so smart. I’m better at doing than thinking.”

“Bullshit. You think you’re smarter because you won’t raise your eyes from the ground.”

“You make life harder than it has to be. You make it sadder.”

“You make life duller than it has to be and I couldn’t possibly make life any sadder.”

The back braces came off in fourth grade, just about the time I started wearing orthodontics and headgear. Caitlin got prettier, I always had food in my teeth. (If I remember correctly, this was also when I began to take up any sport in which I did not have to have teammates). Caity’s back was scoliotic; she had a weakness in her hips and her ankles bowed inwards. She used acupressure and hypnosis to contain the pain. She became a clothes horse of the highest order and insisted on wearing only the most stylish outfits. Visitors would have to wait while she dressed although she had already been dressed when they arrived. She might change more than once in fact before she was ready to go. You rarely arrived on time when you traveled with Caity. Not only did she have to change, she also always drove with a near empty gas tank.

She liked the bad boys, the ones not quite in control of themselves, which meant a fair share of junkies and stalkers. And she never broke up with a boyfriend nicely. The castoffs would bang on our doors at two and three in the morning. Boys in dreadlocks, bums, and the worst weasels would come to our doors after Caity dumped them. They would stand outside her window screaming at her to come down while she shouted back and made fun of the way they talked until Daddy made them leave.

“Do they have to be the dregs of society, Caitlin?” he asked.

“I like adventure, Daddy.”

“You like trouble. But if it’s wimps and crybabies you want, I can find you rich ones.” Daddy should have been born around the time of the Tudors. He was always envisioning dynasties and wealthy sons-in-law. He dreamed empires, his daughters brought him sidewalk vendors selling knock-offs on Venice beach.

“Not them Daddy,” Caity replied. “They’re not as desperate.”

He laughed despite the hour and the fact that he had mashed snails between his toes because he had walked barefoot on the lawn.

“Thank you for scaring them off, Dad,” she said.

“Eh,” he said. “They deserve what they get for messing with ya. Go to bed then. There’s more out there for you to scald tomorrow.”

A couple of times she got cornered by an old beau. Usually tears and flying objects resulted, their tears, her flying objects. Tony Hackett left wearing her cheeseburger and strawberry milkshake. More than once I spent hours with sobbing boys who wanted someone to explain why suddenly they didn’t matter anymore. The fact of the matter, although I never said so, was that they had never mattered.

“Don’t you fall in love with them?” I asked.

“Not a one,” she replied. “Would you?”

“I’m not like you, I don’t date.”

“Who would dare, I’m scared of you too.”

“What would happen to you if I went away? Who’d protect you?”

“Don’t spend your life on your sister, Nora. I’ll be gone one day and you’ll be too out of practice to find someone.”

“Sure, sure, Caity,” I replied. I have numbness in me too. It’s a fondness for simplicity and peace that I don’t think relationships allow. Win or lose, people always seem to emerge from love affairs scarred or bent. I’m already both of those things.

One guy, Wayne, came after Caity once he got out of Folsom. He did his whole bit because he refused to tell the parole board where he had hidden his drug money. It was gone by the time he got out, but knowing Wayne the money was hardly the point. Wayne wanted what he wanted. He saw things simply. He wasn’t Caity’s usual boyfriend and my parents, for once, forbid the relationship. But Caity didn’t listen and Wayne had no intention of letting her go. Caity forgot him when he got locked up. She went away to Europe for a while. I got a night job and enrolled at the community college. When Caity came back, Wayne was waiting. He forced her into his car one night, drove north towards San Francisco and told her they were going to get married. Caity laughed at him and called him names. I found her by the call box and took her to the hospital. I understood when she refused to press charges. Wayne was an ass, but the beating was hardly all his fault.

“Life is bigger than we are,” she’d said then. The beating aggravated her scoliosis, part of the package she was born to, and they were afraid she would never gain enough strength in her legs to walk again. They were wrong of course. But it took time for us to get her back on her feet. She did not want anyone to see her while she tried. She and I moved up to Berkeley and rented the basement from a Russian woman with two spoiled teenage sons who confused tough with rude, and dealt drugs. The woman shared the upper floors with her sons, her husband and her brother. A power drinker, the brother would stagger down the stairs and offer us broiled chickens whenever his sister was out. He said we could have a good life if we wanted to go back to Russia with him.

“Easy life, easy,” he would say mashing out his brown cigarettes on our concrete steps. One night he came to the door four times, each time with a chicken. Finally his sister, who ruled their house, shipped him back to Russia. Soon after that there was a lot of screaming overhead when the cops finally came to take the boys to prison. When the cops questioned us we said we knew nothing and that covered the rent as far as the Russian with the idiot sons was concerned.

The house was set atilt in the soft settling hillside above the city. When it rained mud seeped into the basement covering the floor and ruining our beds. The floor was cement so we hosed it clean. The beds were futons, who gave a fuck, we bought two more. We smoked a lot of pot. I stopped drinking because Caitlin needed me whole and she couldn’t do more than a jay because of her medication regimen. I would carry her to the car some nights when we had to get out. We would drive to the coast, to one of those dank narrow strips of beach where you could watch the elephant seals and whales glide by and wonder about the sharks that you never saw but knew existed because now and again a surfer would lose a leg.

We would sit in the windy dark, bundled in quilts and jackets and listen to the ruffling water and play word games.

“You picked the ocean for your body of water,” she said. “That’s all I’m saying.”

“And that means what, that I think sex is wavy?”

“It means you think it’s big.”

“So what are you gonna pick?”

“Teaspoonful.”

“I thought size didn’t matter.”

“A penis the size of a bobbin matters.”

 “Yeah, I’m officially done with this part of the conversation,” I said, pulling my blankets more tightly around me. The surf had splayed silt in undulating patterns on the shore. Between the dark belts and the dark black sea pale bands of sand broke into the blackness with soft tones and flickered when the water retreated and the moon reflected off it. The sound of the waves reminded me of campfires and the checkered sleeping bags my grandparents had given us when we were little. “It’s pretty out there.”

“It’s dark out there,” Caity said. “And wet and cold.”

“Well sure only if we go sailing, but if we stay on the shore it’s pretty and the sharks can’t eat us,” I said.

“But all you get is beach if you stay on shore, and sand in your shoes, and fleas in your clothes,” she said. The wind brought a wet chill numbed our faces but I knew better than to force Caity to leave before she wanted.

“Ah, Caity,” I said, mimicking our mother’s accent. “The razor blade in everyone’s apple.”

“Ah, Caity,” Caitlin said in the same accent, “If you’d only find a man with a job who liked to live indoors.”

“Ma told me you searched for boyfriends like a stray cat; always rummaging through dumpsters,” I said.

“Don’t want to be like Ma, Nora,” she said. “Don’t want to look back and see a wasted life. She wakes up, works and goes to bed and if she was pretty once, if she was smart once, doesn’t matter. There she is on the fucking beach, hauling fucking seaweed.”

“What’s the difference between a life of choring and a life of clearing rubbish from your door stop?”

“You’re a mothering type. You could have kids,” she said.

“I want fewer connections not more. I’ve already washed diapers and rocked babies, thank you.”

“Your head’s up your ass,” she replied. “It’s exactly what you want.”

“You’re too fucking clever by far.” I checked her temperature before she could stop me. She let me touch her briefly and then twisted her head aside, out of reach.

“There’s a rumor going around that you fuck animals,” she said.

I pulled a bottle of aspirin from a pocket and shook it and she shook her head. “And how do you defend me when you hear it?”

“Hear it? Hell, I started it.” The aspirin bottle had never been opened. Caity didn’t like pills, needles, doctors, small dogs, pillow shams, curfews, bananas, peanut butter, squash, hot dogs, soap operas, red wine, bad novels, guitar solos, flamenco music, the Partridge family, Mormons, spandex, short shorts, cold weather, heights, failure, ugly girls, fat boys, John Denver, cowboy boots, gardening, orange, magenta, or puce. She loved purple.

“Ever eaten a lot of sand all at once?” I asked. I liked crunchy peanut butter, John Denver, cold weather, heights, Merlots, cowboy boots, orange and magenta, but not puce, and I hated David Cassidy and Shirley Jones, but not Danny Bonaduce.

“Touch me again and I’ll haunt you,” she replied. “My ghost will sit on your doorstep, screaming foul names, night and day, day and night.”

“You do that now,” I said.

“Wait’ll I get my strength back. I’ll think of something really terrible.”

“No doubt.” Sometimes it wasn’t that she was in pain, but that everything ached and she couldn’t settle. So we would drive to the beach and sit in the cold until she fell asleep. And then I would take her home.

Caity was an artist, she did something with websites that I could not understand but it allowed her to make money. I could never keep a job. I don’t know what happens, I lose interest. Not that I cared. I had to tend to Caity. Sometimes I would clean kennels, bus tables or wash floors. Hospitals are always looking for someone to clean. I like the jobs where you can shut down and work. Just mop or just scrub and haul or just fold and wash. You’re wearing a uniform so no one sees your face, really. They just hand you a bucket and point you towards the sink. There’s peace in physical labor. If you work hard enough, you can tire yourself beyond the ability to think or feel. I knew when Caity got well, she’d leave without a by your leave and I would be back to the same. There’d be nothing on my mind but getting through the day. “Living on the beach” as Caity would have said. My dad used to tell me that I lacked imagination.

“A throwback is what you are,” he said. “I could take you back to Ireland and leave you in a plot of rocks and you’d work it till you died and never know the difference.” He wasn’t being mean, necessarily, but he didn’t understand me. He used to say the best thing his grandfather ever did was leave Ireland and that the best thing his father ever did was leave the South for the city. A daughter who just wanted to gruel through life didn’t make sense to him. I might have tried to explain myself, but I didn’t know how.

I know the difference between believing in the future and not planning for one, but I don’t see the point in looking beyond the day I’m in, beyond the chores I must task. I’m not sad. I’m not lost. Caity, when she was mean, used to say I was a drifter.

“If you’d at least been a serial killer, you’d a been an interesting drifter,” she said. She had a book in her lap at the time, Serial Killers of North America. “But you’re just a dolt.” Flattened horizons, the world before Columbus, was my favored view. I had a handle on how many parts disinfectant per gallons of water and on how many buckets per each dog run and how many towels per cage. No shame in that. The larger things, all the wheeling demons that roiled around in Caity’s mind and heart, that kept her awake at night, that made staying still her horror, didn’t haunt me.

Wayne found us again. After Caity called him.

Melodrama made her believe she was in the middle of change. When I came home and found them together, I tried to throw him out. It went further south than even Caity wanted, I think.

“I gotta go,” she said kneeling by my side on the floor.

“It’s just a game to you,” I said.

“I don’t feel what you feel, Nora,” she replied. “Don’t want to live like you do.”

“Who said you had to?”

“Long as I’m around you I’m near something in myself I don’t like.”

“Fuck off,” I said. She smiled and somehow I felt like she’d won because now I was telling her to go.

They left. I wasn’t the type to press charges either. I got off the floor, washed the blood off my face, packed my bags and moved north. I can’t explain Caity to you. She did what she thought she had to. Sometimes I even think that she thought she was doing me a favor and then I remember that she never thought of anyone but herself. I never figure it out well enough so the thing will settle in me and become the past. I can’t figure it out and it wrecks the featureless landscape I try to keep hold of in order to anchor me to that beach Caity hated so much.

I never saw the rest of my family again. Once Caity left I couldn’t go home anymore. I didn’t ever want to talk about her. I’m not sure that I ever loved my family anyway. It seemed to me that I was always an out of place piece in that collective. I saw my grandmother now and again because I owed her that much. She paid some bills for me when necessary and what did it cost me, some uncomfortable moments and some restless nights until the depression lifted.

 

“I could tell you where she is,” Grandmother said, referring to Caity.

“She wouldn’t like that Grandmother,” I replied.

“You shouldn’t fight. Sisters shouldn’t fight,” she said. Being that my grandmother was the only surviving child of her parents’ marriage, I tend to think she’s gilded her memories somewhat. She never mentions her brother’s name.

“Just don’t tell me,” I said. “I don’t want to know.”

I never asked for Caity’s address and I didn’t try to find her. I don’t know for sure that she’s dead, but I‘m not ready for that kind of information. Too much, too big. There is a forceful swell inside me that I keep contained. Knowing what had happened to Caity would threaten that self control.

 

I put down the book I had been reading before Diantha had approached and stared at her. She was again struggling in her grandfather’s grip. He had taken pity on Sydney and retrieved his bairn.

“Pretty dog,” Diantha signed again.

“Does she have sisters”? I asked.

“Nope,” he said releasing the girl. Unbound, she trailed after Sydney. The dog circled a hedge and eyed the big bad baby through the shrubbery.

“One’s enough for my daughter,” the old man said. “She wanted a girl, and she likes working.”

“She wanted a girl or a kid?” I asked.

“She wanted  a girl. You have kids?”

“No, too hard a job, too complicated.”

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