A Detail in that Story Sondra Zeidenstein
A D E TA I L
I N T H AT
S T O RY
by Sondra Zeidenstein
Late Afternoon Woman A Wider Giving: Women Writing after a Long Silence (editor) The Crimson Edge: Older Women Writing (editor) Heart of the Flower: Poems for the Sensuous Gardener (editor)
A D E TA I L I N T H A T S T O RY
Chicory Blue Press, Inc., Goshen, Connecticut
Chicory Blue Press, Inc. Goshen, Connecticut 06756 © 1998 Sondra Zeidenstein. All rights reserved. Printed in the United States of America Book Designer: Virginia Anstett The author wishes to acknowledge the editors of the following magazines and anthologies, in which some of these poems have appeared: Kalliope, The Ledge, Lungfull!, The Maverick Press, Mudfish, Passionate Lives, edited by Elizabeth Claman (Queen of Swords Press, 1998), Standing Wave, Yellow Silk. Some of these poems appeared in the chapbook, Late Afternoon Woman (Chicory Blue Press, 1992). Thanks to Penny Cagan, Jessica Cohen, Susan Fawcett, Carole Stone and Geraldine Zetzel for their helpful criticism. Special thanks to Betty Buchsbaum for critiquing my manuscript. I am particularly grateful to: Honor Moore whose vision inspired me to write, Sharon Olds for providing safety to bring forth what is within, Cortney Davis for staying with me from beginning to end, Ragdale Artists Colony for providing uninterrupted work time, stirring companions, kind and creative staff, Beverly Antaeus, leader of Hawk, I’m Your Sister, for taking me to the river.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Zeidenstein, Sondra. A detail in that story / Sondra Zeidenstein. p. cm. ISBN 1-887344-05-5 (pbk.) I. Title. PS3576.E368D48 1998 811'.54 – dc21
THE ONE DREAM Over this longmarried pair sprinkle nepenthe. Let them forget for an hour on Sunday Afghanistan, Palestinian camps, childâ€™s face crumpling under a threat. Clear the airwaves honeycombed with sorrow. Let the sun flash through maple flowers tasseled like earrings, through smallpaned windows, touch their peach duvet, peach flannel sheets. Let karmas of cramped children, stunting parents give room. Shut the sad brain, let them be skin only. Draw a circle around their cherrywood bed for this hour. Let the glow of their cave burnish away imperfections. Let their eyes be slits, discriminating. Let hands soften, hips unknot, backs let go old compressions. Let failures spice their soft bellies, their tinder take fire. Let them not be young betraying each other â€“ oh not young. Let her breasts be richly complicated. Let his penis rise wise and humble. Let him seek her in his fingertips. Let her moisten a tangy nectar. Let them be careless, slippery, forgiving. Let their cries enter brooks rushing the gorge, ring in the calls of Canada geese, red-eyed vireo, raccoon. Let that saferoom send its held heat into the world and let them naked, entwined, sleep, dreaming, like Vishnu, the one dream. vii
TA B L E
The One Dream vii A Detail in that Story 1 By the Covered Bridge 3 Holding Still 5 The Love Affair 6 Honesty 8 Partition 9 Devotions 10 Shredded Lettuce 12 Folders 13 Exposure 15 Underneath 17 First Betrayal 18 Come sit with me while I clean my room. 20 Collusion 21 In My Bed 23 What is Incest Anyway? 24 On Learning Years Later 25 First Time 27 Hot Girl 29 Surrender 31 Evidence 32 Will You Still Need Me 33 Letter from the Rio Grande 35 Where We Are Now 37 Children 39 Meditating on Breasts 41 Second Life 42
What Belongs Where 43 Leaving Baja 45 Velcro 47 Connection 48
A D E TA I L
I N T H AT
S T O RY
Color is fading from this photograph like decades of my life – not yet black and white but not vivid either, the two of us with flower necklaces down our chests, marigolds, moist jasmine seeping into cotton, our chins lowered in a small bow to a country we’re leaving, flesh of our noses catching the light, my plump lower lip, your uneven teeth. No one can see my saliva is rancid and my gums bleed, no one would say your face is thin, but I’ve watched it pinch, hollows carved from your cheeks. Your eyes are narrowed against the sun, but direct. My eyes are not. It’s six months since I told you – who blurt out everything – I keep secrets you can’t imagine, living so close, I could keep. It is easy. I leave the lover’s room, mouth flavored with his juices, cross the bridge still calling his name, and when I unlock the door to our children, I am not that woman, her moans, her surrender. I keep telling you I can love two men, love is abundant, look how we love our two children, while you get thinner and thinner. You will not let me go. 1
We’re long past that now. I remember the taste of his semen not with pleasure or desire, but as a detail in that story. I’ve kept quiet about those years. You can’t forget a day I came home and went straight to the shower. I change the subject. Close it. Close the door. At least let me claim the soapy rag I hurried across my breasts, between my legs, sliver of soap I dug in the threads of silk panties, how I toweled my skin in a rush, still moist when I came out to attend your wounding.
We are out for Sunday breakfast, I’m leafing the Book Review, you’re reading the Hers column, when you look up and ask: Who was the man you had an affair with, or did you say, slept with in India? No shadow across your blue eyes, just something you read about women travelling alone. We’ve already done our long walk and now we’re eating pancakes, yours with blueberries, what’s in season, mine, as always, plain. And to come, because it’s Sunday again, wildflower bubble bath, double locking the door and then, home – your furry chest, your mouth, your tongue. I say: oh, I don’t remember, how long ago was it, twenty years? and you, catching my unease, say: I only care how we are now. But driving the long hill home, past early lilies, summer skies delphinium, I see the long-ago lover – mass of curls, thick lenses that make kind eyes small. I was having my period, the last day. I had a white-capped pimple on my chin I popped next morning in the cabin of the train we rode impulsively, strangers, across India, his head reaching above mine, his feet below mine in the cramped berth. Welsh. Poppet, he called me. I could, if I had time, savor warm chappatis, watch dust sting the window, the dark rolling, rolling…. I put it away like out-of-fashion jewelry,
frog with ruby eyes, rhinestone bee, in tissue at the back of the drawer behind socks, colored underclothes. I am not sorry for anything I have done in my life.
HOLDING STILL How old am I in this dress I bought for our anniversary dinner? White chiffon over shimmery white underslip, mother of pearl beading cinching the waist, relentless, making me sit up straight in the leather chair, Revlon nails clutching the ends of the chair arms, underarms, shaved by my husband’s tempered steel razor, stung with deodorant’s ice blue ball, cupid’s bow lips, nervously slicked, upturned in a small smile for the shutter. The children are not in the picture. They sit on the couch, watching, arms and legs touching, think I look hard-to-get, like a dark-skinned movie star, wouldn’t dream of pressing for their goodnight kiss. They know how I worked to get my hair to fluff so evenly, see how I tilt my head so leather won’t flatten the flip. It’s been ten years. I’m thirty-one, read Henry Miller. I’m still strict about the marriage vow. Am I already fitted for an IUD? When my husband has his fill of taking pictures, I let him help me on with my coat. I don’t have to tell him to be careful, he knows – one breath, one smudge, one run, one chip of a fingernail, one humid touch and I’m ruined.
T H E L O V E A F FA I R She was particular about the color – old ivory – of thin silk her garter belt was made of, loved the tease of silk bra without a lining against her breasts. She was fussy about toner she applied to oily skin, tinted base that filled her coarse pores, persistent in stiffening her face with clay. Evenings I see her quiz her son and daughter, sit with them over fractions, brush her daughter’s thick tangle into a french chignon then set her own – baby fine, sparsely follicled – dig bobby pins into her scalp that will wake her at two a.m. beside her husband, to touch each pinwheel worriedly, redo loose strands. Why do I smile remembering that woman poised hopefully over jars of creams, clogged with no longer miscible color, on the smeared glass tray above the sink? Why am I not ready to waken her from the mirror, plucking dark hairs from the corners of her mouth, brushing her hair out of pincurls? How could she know her daughter would get too thin, her son would turn away? Just a little longer let me not disturb this earnest mother
who threads gold hoops into her earlobes, smudges a line of kohl under her eyes, splashes Jean NatĂŠ all over, disappears down the shadowed steps of the subway.
HONESTY Their sex is pretty good for sixty-three and sixty-six. They make love Sundays and sleep in each other’s arms as if they’d escaped the need to die. Though to tell the truth, she’s rarely caught off guard by wanting him, her skin refuses all but the planned embrace and even then she’s slow to waken. But at least she’s honest finally, can’t imagine how she used to come home to her husband oozing a lover’s seed, can’t understand what the partition was made of that separated fancy garter belt, antic pelvis, grunting in borrowed rooms, from kindly, bookish wife, can’t remember who that woman was in the taxi on her way home, holding in one hand dollars her lover gave her for fare, in the other, rushed lunch staining a paper napkin – steaming, half-eaten, street corner hot dog – loving the race down Lex to make the greens, her body one with the veer and swerve, not holding on or worrying about sprung doors, loving the in-between space where she rolls whichever way the motion takes her.
PA RT I T I O N Sitting beside my daughter to organize facts for her report on Eleanor Roosevelt, the last line of which we agree has to be: it is better to light a candle than to curse the dark, or watching my son handwalk the highest bars of the jungle gym, or lying, pin-curled, in bed with my husband, I forget that I go down into subway shadows once a week, climb steep flights of stairs at 62nd and 2nd, enter the sallow arms of a lover to fuck until all of my life disappears but the slosh and slide of my cervix against unrelenting hardness. I do not know the sopping, low-moaning slut – I’m your slave, he tells her to say when he comes – who comes back down, limp hair uncurled, knees trembling. Though I wear her glazed underpants the rest of the afternoon as I press American cheese with its bleed of pimento between two slices of bread in the buttered skillet and watch my children eat, I forget bloodied sheets, unlaundered, on 62nd Street, unthinkable in the light of a husband’s blue eye, or the sky through steel-barred, child-proof windows on the sixteenth floor, with a view of the Bronx. The hussy, satiated, lives in another room. She is a roomer, the partition between us dense as sheetrock. She sleeps, while I, in my flowered apron, stand at the stainless steel sink sponging crumbs from my children’s plates into the strainer to mingle with yesterday’s pulpy seeds, bloated crusts, scrapings my fingers recoil from.
DEVOTIONS Say I’m your slave, your slut he’d say to me when he was ready to come after long versatile fucking, fancy dancing he called it, bringing me again and again to the godhead. That’s what I called my first orgasms, at 33, married, mother of two. I knew he was just showing off, like stopping when I was livid with pleasure to light a cigarette, staying big inside me while he smoked it. When we were dressed, I was wary of him, the way he’d make fun of my clothes – provincial, Pittsburgh, say I talked like an English teacher, show me his monogrammed shirts, hundred pairs of shoes in his wife’s closet. But in bed or bent over the back of a chair or wiggling on the floor, I knew he wouldn’t betray me. I’d say, I’m your slave, in a soft, unsullied, not very convincing voice, his cock gummy with my secretions, my pelvis working in all four directions. And sometimes, after two hours or two days of fingerstonguecock, his devotions – like music a dervish whirls to – drawing me to a point of concentration, I’d lie beside him as he slept,
and arrive in a holy place, silent, dark, emptied of personality, brimming. I wasnâ€™t his slave. He was my leader, my guide. I assumed he crossed over with me. Now, looking back at our peculiar writhings, now that I can see him coldly, how he needed a woman to kneel â€“ I am still grateful.
SHREDDED LETTUCE He opens the sliding door and a sharp wind off the bay whacks the salami sandwich out of his fingers, it loses its shredded lettuce onto the polished floor, God damn it to hell! I had a hard night, he says, bad dream I can’t remember, I woke up making a list of all your lovers, asking myself why. The lettuce, moist, but no mayo, I took up easily, put some of it back in his sandwich, the list, unbidden, already in my head: Ralph. Allan, the way he layered a pan with kosher salt when he seared me a steak. Rollo, in sunglasses, jealous, stalking me down narrow streets. Fred, on a night train across India, thrumming my groin above the bloody muff. Sanford, when I had gonorrhea, sucking my nipple from Manhattan to Queens in a taxi. Marcus whose penis was crook’d at the tip like a socket wrench. What chances I took while they still had their cocks in their pants, grinding into them with an easy pelvis, loosening zippers, pulling back elastic to the thing that was the real stranger. Chucky, who called what I did sucking a lollipop. The list seems short for how busy I was, how slick my underpants. And why? I’m angry he won’t understand it hasn’t to do with size of the penis, something he did wrong with fingers or tongue. That’s something to take to a therapist, I snap, and snap at him all morning, until September transparent light, bright tips of water, separate us from the long past, give us back what we have, an ease almost, in the present.
FOLDERS On a shelf in the stationer’s, small, expandable folders, stiff, reddish brown, ribboned, meant to hold index cards – I used them once, labeled by subject: Modern Lit., Shakespeare, Renaissance in Italy, to study for my orals, took them with me when we moved to Kathmandu, and when my lover’s airmail letters arrived, I’d slit the flimsy blue – single page crammed with what he wanted to do to me, a few words lost in the licked margin. I’d read them, quick as if the whole tantric valley was holding its breath and stick them in with my notecards. The letters got longer, 3 or 4 crackly sheets apiece expanding the folders. When he sent a Valentine’s gift – black lace bikini with a slit crotch – the folders bulged, their accordion pleats stretched to capacity. I hid them behind books, up high, where children couldn’t reach. When my husband found them and read all the letters, he folded them back in their pouches, tied the ribbons, drank until he was not himself. Still there are crannies I flinch
from sticking my fingers into â€“ I donâ€™t ask him how he lives when we make love and I am not the woman in the letters.
EXPOSURE I want to be transparent pellucid, all the words that mean light passes through lucent but my poems collect unseemly matter like nits that feed on cabbage or the creamy secretions I gathered from child-snug labia pungency sniffed from my fingers stink nobody knew not even Mother who scrubbed smut from my kneecaps. I want to be seen into like a pond when sun is slant but particles stick to my poems like skin cells to soap scum in Pittsburghâ€™s hard water or the yeast smell Motherâ€™s mouth left on the mouth of the phone. I want to be clean as Greek statues
but when my muse scratches body grit spatters from pore and duct, hole and crack a thick-pricked lover insisted on pushing into raising a hemorrhoid something, he said to remember me by.
U N D E R N E AT H I am plagued by my husband’s dream. We go into the kitchen of a new café, he tells me, and the cook greets us, he’s an old friend of yours, an old lover, he’s big and tall and has a very long penis; then I flash to another frame, that shows how the two of you make love. I tell my husband my dream about not being able to find my bicycle so I can get home with the fragile dog I carry, who is sometimes our son and sometimes a small-boned Lhasa apso I drop twice and almost kill. In real life, we are at a book fair, I’m selling books on the balcony while underneath, unknown to my husband, a journal is being sold in which a poem of mine says how easy it was to be two women. When my husband goes out for air, I sneak below to look at my poem in print. I don’t tell him all my dreams: young men embracing me, holding me against their clothed bodies. I’m afraid if I tell him everything I will lose the dark hold of my poems. If mother knew what gathered in the folds of my labia, she who examined my panties every night before bath, what pungent secretions I harvested in my fingernails…. We lie beside each other, restless, after our dreams, I, desperate for his warmth, he for my bulky curves, we are old, we love each other: enemy, beloved. 17
F I R S T B E T R AY A L We lived in a railroad apartment, brownstone basement, nursery in front, barred windows looking up at ankles and shins. Laura hadn’t started to walk, Peter was overdue. My back hurt. I was tired of the three dresses that still fit me, vein pushing through my skin, blue worm attached to my kneecap. We hadn’t had sex for months – I was carrying low, close to the mouth of desire. As soon as Laura fell asleep, we came up out of windowless rooms to sit on the stoop, drink vodka with tonic and lime, snuggle close on unyielding slabs. You’ll see, I wheedled, to keep him near me, we’ll have each other soon. Peter pummeled with thick flat feet. Be patient, I coaxed and promised my arms, my breasts, everything. Peter came fast, first pains at six and by eight he was pulled from me
dented, chinless, his thick legs pumping. I hadnâ€™t bargained for how I would crave this boyâ€™s being in the world, straightforward, hungry, clamoring to be held. Passion would have to be my secret.
SIT WITH ME WHILE
She was fifteen. I wanted to be a good mother, so I sat with her, a secret lover’s cum caking my thighs, while she lifted ethnic dolls out of tissue paper, flounced their taffeta skirts. I sat with her while she folded her bras, smoothed her underpants flat. I sat on her day bed, narrow plank against the wall, a pallet, his dander under my nails, while she vacuumed lint from her rug, attacked soot in the slats of venetian blinds. I sat with her while she brought a bucket of Mr. Clean diluted with water, rinsed the filthy sponge until water was gray and particled. I sat, his oils and salts in my hair, while she unfolded the ironing board, took out the skirt she wanted to wear to school tomorrow, told me exactly what she’d eaten for lunch and on the way home. I consulted the little book for her, Calorie Counter, looked up numbers: one slice American cheese, white bread unbuttered, Snickers bar as compared to Baby Ruth. She counted, re-counted how many she had left for the day, if she was behind or ahead. I wanted to be a good mother. I sat with her while hairs grew dark at the corners of her mouth, her body thickened, and I didn’t get it – how singlehandedly she battled disorder and the flesh.
COLLUSION Mother stripped me – narrow as a tadpole – slipped me through the peeled-open curtain and I stood naked, shiny fixtures at my spine, facing my naked father through wild waters. Watch me, I’ll show you, he smiled, fingers busy whipping a lather over his chest and belly, blur of bubbles, hair, something that dangled. When he moved in under the showerhead, I stopped breathing. Frayed suds slid from his chest, his fingers danced across his shoulders, caressing his flesh with clear water. Now it’s your turn, he said and watched me, graceless, drag the bunched rag across my pale nipples. When I inched under the showerhead, backward, so water wouldn’t go up my nose, he tilted the flow off his palms to rinse me. Then he let me out. Here, Soph, take her. The lock clicked behind me. I was desperate to hide the shining in my eyes. This is not about finding myself naked in front of my naked father in a misted room, its mirrors sealed.
It is not about his trespass, twinge, maybe, at how tight my skin fit me, how tidy my pubis, how shiny I was. No. This is about the chilly hall where I stood naked in front of my mother, my skin brimming with pleasure she rubbed off me as if it were grime.
IN MY BED By now I recognize the roles they play in my bed: my father after his shower, each pore coaxed open by steam, splashing his skin with witch hazel, shivering with the nip of pleasure – that’s me when I oil my husband’s back with euphorba, grease each mole, wen, gritty keratosis, silver grasses of his shoulders, slither onto him slickening my breasts and belly. My mother’s another story. She’s here to distract me – look, Sondra, smudges on the window glass, where did you put the window washer’s number? – to keep me aloof from the lipping at my nipple, mother who shrank even from the chuff of the powder puff she hurried over her skin. She’s here the instant he dips into my wetness, the instant I open to him – look mother, where his mouth is – making her small mouth of disgust, shame! filth! look, mother, how I’m pushing into his tongue, drowning you out with my singing.
W H AT
I N C E S T A N Y WAY ?
That my mother bathed me until I was twelve? That she washed my sister’s hair until my sister was sixty? That my sister at sixty would sit in the living room naked while my mother was sectioning grapefruit or scribbling the grocery list? That I sat in her tub until I was twelve, skin beginning to puff around my nipples? That I sat, stiff as a capital L, didn’t wiggle, that I let her lift my arm, extend it, rub from the hairless dark down to my wrist? What is incest anyway? That I visit a masseuse who doesn’t speak as she works me – wrist, palm, fingerpad – while under my tongue, alto, like love moans, mummy, mummy, oh mummy?
These poems by Sondra Zeidenstein are love poems – to her husband, to her children, and most of all to the woman within, the woman who survived a childhood stripped of passion and mother-love. Now, in her sixties, Sondra Zeidenstein has come to a place of defiance and celebration. Even in a time when poets often dare to tell the truth about their lives, some issues are rarely confronted: how we’ve hurt our children or our partners, how we’ve kept secrets in order to protect the woman within, sometimes at great cost. In poems that are astonishing, palpable and uniquely brave, Zeidenstein succeeds in reclaiming passion, in cherishing both past and present, and in raising a love song that will abide long after the pages of this book are closed. – CORTNEY DAVIS In a sequence that reads like a novel, Sondra Zeidenstein gives us a story of infidelity, of a passage in a woman’s life, in the life of a marriage. What gives the book its power is her refusal to compromise in poems that are, in turn, raw, desperate, searching, and unerringly tender. We are left in possession of a new and tested vision of enduring connection between one wife and husband, joined in what the poet can celebrate, at last, as “the one dream.” – HONOR MOORE A Detail in that Story by Sondra Zeidenstein is quite simply one of the best and most honest books I’ve read this year. These are the dangerous poems that youth often try for and fail. Fail because the real danger zone is not in exhibitionism, but in doing what Zeidenstein has done – risking all! These are fierce, frightening and frank poems that resonate with an eroticism that raises the collective consciousness to what life is and can be. – SAPPHIRE “I keep secrets you can’t imagine, living so close, I could keep,” Sondra Zeidenstein says in the title poem to her new collection, an extended meditation on the seemingly contradictory themes of secrecy and intimacy. She examines a long-term marriage from every possible angle – that of a daughter, of a loving wife and partner, of a passionate young woman and a passionate older one. She flinches from nothing; she remembers everything. This is the book that many women would be writing if they had the guts. – SUE ELLEN THOMPSON
Sondra Zeidenstein is editor of A Wider Giving: Women Writing after a Long Silence and The Crimson Edge: Older Women Writing. She lives in Goshen, Connecticut. ISBN 1-887344-05-5 51495
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