Categories
2018 NonFiction

Annalise Mabe

LITTLE DEATHS

My parents were ex-pats in 1993, taking my sister and me to Prague where dust came from the bodies of men, old as meshed chain, armor and silver swords. The city, the churches were filled to the brim with bones.

I was three, the air swimming around me, smelling sweet of goulash and knedliky, or pilsners from the pub. My father took a job at an English language newspaper, The Prognosis, while my mother gave guided tours to other ex-pats visiting the city. At night I curled up between my parents, my sister tucked in close on the couch around the small T.V. watching Jonny Quest, a show about a young boy following his scientist-father around on adventures. Sometimes I fell asleep while watching, the static of the T.V. lulling me, a soft sea of voices rushing in and out before my parents carried me to bed, kissing my forehead or tucking my hair behind my ear. I’d like to think this was when they were still in love. This, in Prague, was when we were still together.

                                                                                *

Before my mother was my mother, she was long and thin-limbed in thrift shop clothes, in hand-me-downs, walking across a Florida college campus. Her friends called her Ally, or Ally Cat, short for Allison. Before my father was my father, he was Logan, and more of what you’d call a mod—a 60s term for a young person of a certain subculture who wore skinny ties, rode scooters, and liked all things alt. In freshman composition he got her number.

On hot summer evenings they cracked the windows wide open before falling asleep between the sheets. They called their parents not to ask, but to tell them they were moving in together. Months later, Allison moved to study abroad in France and Logan wrote her every day. Allison tied a string to a coin, dropping it in the slot, saving money to call Logan long distance. I’m sure they said “I miss you” over a hundred times, but in French, I miss you doesn’t translate neatly. It translates to you are missing from me, or, I am not whole without you. Logan told his parents he would sell all of his records for a plane ticket to see her. They flew him over.

On New Year’s Eve, Allison and Logan sat on a Parisian rooftop, swigging down champagne from the green glass bottle before kissing, before throwing it down into the street.

                                                                                *

The first thing I loved was a stuffed animal rabbit.

My parents gave me the rabbit when I was fifteen months old and I named him B. Bunny. I slept on him every night, his fluff rolling soft between my neck and shoulder, absorbing the sheen of my baby sweat. He smelled like the only home I’d ever known.

One winter while we were living in Prague, his white ear fell off somewhere on our walk home. I didn’t know where we lost it. Months passed, the sun melting the snow, when my mother crouched down, picking up the lone ear sticking out of the snow in a parking lot. At home, she took off her coat, stitched him back together, whole and anew.

                                                                                *

I am the second-born daughter to Allison and Logan.

I was small when I was born, conceived in January of 1990, after the New Year. After falling confetti and resolutions, after turmoil and arguments. I imagine I was a last try of sorts, a resolution myself, the consequence of their attempt to pick up the pieces, to put themselves back together again.

Allison was pregnant with me in France at an Opera House, flipping through the program when she saw the name she’d give me, a ballerina’s, a credit in ink: Annalise. The name means graced with God’s bounty, but I don’t think my parents believed in such a thing.

                                                                                *

La petite mort, or the little death, is the brief loss or weakening of consciousness, and sometimes, the sensation of orgasm. It was first used in 1882 to relay a post-orgasmic state of unconsciousness that some people have after sex. When the eyes roll back, when they close and you see bursts of bright light. When you transcend your body, escaping the physical confines of skin, the shrapnel of what feels like war on the field of your sheets. This is what it means when you say I love you to death.

                                                                                *

A few years after Prague, we moved to Florida to be close to family. I was five or six in my parents’ shared apartment when my sister and I climbed out of our bunk beds one night past our bedtime. Like little sleuths, we crept on hands and knees across the carpeted floor of the hallway, following the noise, the shouting.

Throwing words across the table, my parents broke like the glass cup I once dropped on the tile  floor, my mother telling me not to move a muscle. The door swung open while I watched my mother leave the apartment, the rush of cold night air greeting my face.

                                                                                *

The Tibetan Book of the Dead is the Western title for Tibet’s bardo thos grol, where the word bardo refers to an intermediate state between lives and thos grol refers to liberation, awakening, or nirvana. Some have likened the act of sex and the experience of orgasm to nirvana, which overlaps with sidpa bardo, the bardo of rebirth, said to result in hallucinations of women and men fiercely entangled, of lovers entwined.

Is this what the vow means, till death do us part? Does it mean then that divorce is a death, a rebirth, or something entirely of its own? And what, then, of those born of it, from the in-between?

Sometimes I’ve felt like the product of my parents’ limbo. Of their standing in the middle of reconciliation, or their agreement of another try. My creation, my body, has come from their willingness, their attempt to seal up the cracks. To lacquer the lines of the breaks. Sometimes I wonder what that makes me, then, knowing I wasn’t, knowing I couldn’t be the fix they were looking for.

                                                                                *

I had B. Bunny for a few more years before I lost him for good one day. I was six and sick about it, hot tears rolling down my cheeks into the pillowcase. My mother tried to tell me it was just like The Velveteen Rabbit, that B. Bunny was okay, and wandered off into the woods to be with real rabbits. That he wasn’t dead or trampled on or rained on. But I knew that wasn’t the case. I knew that I had dropped him in the parking lot of the grocery store, that he was out there somewhere, collecting dirt.

Losing B. Bunny was not a worthy case for psychoanalytical prodding, but years later while reading The Shell and The Kernel, Karl Abraham’s work rang out and I thought of the stuffed rabbit in reading: “The illness of mourning does not result, as might appear, from the affliction caused by the objectal loss itself, but rather from the feeling of an irreparable crime.” I had known then, at six, that it was my fault.

                                                                                *

A small part of me died. It wasn’t when my parents sat my sister and me down in our shared bedroom to tell us they were separating and it wasn’t when my father moved into his own apartment, reeking of freshly painted walls, a white too clean, too sterile. I don’t know if it was a Tuesday, or if it was early afternoon, or late at night in my bed, when I realized that there was no going back.

There wasn’t one reason for my parents’ divorce. It seemed more like a small grocery list of moments that tumbled together into being too much. I can’t know fully why it happened because the truth is that a myriad of things happened, all too mild, too plain and dull to suffice as a good reason.

                                                                                *

I stood small, sweating in the parking lot, looking up at my mother’s new boyfriend outside her white Volkswagen we called Astrid shortly after losing B. Bunny. He handed me a new stuffed rabbit with green silky ears, a consolation for my lost beloved.

The new rabbit my mother’s boyfriend gave me was neat with his matching green bowtie and small pink nose. In bed at night, I slept with my head on him, smelling his fake fur, looking for the scent of home, only finding what smelled like a department store.

I came to terms with loss, lying in my lower bunk bed. I knew then that the things you carry at your chest, the raggedy and torn, are fleeting, short-lived, or left for dead in gravel parking lots, for the eventual rain, or the melting of the snow.

                                                                                *

I watched my father break silently. It was in the quietness of our breakfasts at the coffee table, watching T.V. It was in the car ride home from school, when he picked us up from after care, when the sun was starting to set and we still had to cook dinner. It was in my neatly folded clothes and the ponytail he helped me tie up tight by himself.

We all broke into tiny pieces and talked little about it, my sister taking to her friends, my mother to her new boyfriend. I waited for it to get better, for things to be fixed, for the glue to set and take hold.

                                                                                *

After college, I found letters from my father to my mother while looking for an old art project in a box at her house. I unfolded the pages of yellow lined paper, his wide, familiar script inked in black.

He wrote pages to her about the times when he loved her most: Was it when you walked into the room at the cocktail party and everyone stopped to look, to hold a second of you? Was it when you slipped out of bed in the night, your silhouette in the doorframe, to nurse our first daughter?

I couldn’t help but cry, holding the aged paper in my hands. I couldn’t help but look around my childhood bedroom and feel like I had been transported, had been somewhere else.

Roland Barthes spoke of petite mort when regarding reading. He said it was a feeling one should get when they experience an exceptional piece of writing. That if the piece is good, you are there with the character, living the words, and when it’s finished, you, in a sense, are finished.

                                                                                *

As I grew up, I liked to pretend that everything was fine, that the divorce was really no big deal. I don’t care, I said.

I believed I didn’t care, but I searched for love, for wholeness, in every boyfriend. I believed that Bryan or David or Paul was “the one,” as if there was a “one.” I believed in promise rings and yearly anniversaries, cards, and lockets and ticket stubs. Boxes of letters, of folded, lined paper scrawled with ink, stuffed animals I took with me on trips, tuckered under my chin before sleep. I counted on these things, these tangible pieces of proof that said I was loved.

                                                                                *

I find myself wanting to believe. I take to yoga as a coping mechanism, an exercise and practice that yields a physical release of energy that leaves me lighter upon leaving the old wooden house, grateful for the warmth of the day settling on my skin.

At the beginning and end of class we share an Om, a resounding vibration that fills the room. I take comfort in the symbol itself that sees death, that sees dying or loss as not so bad, not so scary, but a return to something bigger, where the individual unites with a divine collective. Where the individual is no longer alone.

A part of the Om symbol illustrates the illusion that we are separate, and another part, the diamond sitting at the top, represents nirvana, or a break from the limbos, from feeling like someone, something, is missing.

In class on a Thursday night, the instructor tells us that yoga is preparation for death. I lay on my back in corpse pose with eyes closed, palms face up, open to the sky for what I may receive. My breathing slows, chest unmoving, and for a moment I am cleansed by the wash of cars rushing past outside, rolling in and out like heavy waves. I am wiped free of the day’s dirt, the thoughts that crowd the front of my head, free of my body, weightless like water, like swimming far out. The salt, the sea on my upper lip.

For a moment I unravel. I am simply undone, letting my eyes wet at the edges in a room full of people. We are alone and together all at once, preparing. For a moment, it overcomes me, the release of held energy. The world in the wooden room at a standstill, waking together at the ring of a singing bowl.


Annalise Mabe is a writer from Tampa, Florida. Her nonfiction, poetry, and comics have appeared in Brevity, The Boiler, Columbia Journal, New Delta Review, The Offing, The Rumpus, BOOTH, Word Riot, Hobart, and more. She was a finalist for the december Curt Johnson Prose Award judged by Eula Biss, and currently serves as a nonfiction editor for Sweet: A Literary Confection. @AnnaliseMabe annalisemabe.com

Categories
2015 NonFiction

Annalise Mabe

SPACE TAKER

All I thought about the summer after fifth grade was catching minnows with my neighbor in the muddy lake by my house. I wasn’t thinking about how to lose my belly fat in two weeks or how to best cover up blemishes. How to hold my shoulders back at a party or apply lipstick without getting any on my teeth. I didn’t know there was a proper way to enter a bar so that every head would turn and stop to hold a second of me. These are things I have learned.

I was eleven that summer when the sun stayed up with us until eight, coloring clouds like pools of florescent soft serve. My sinewy limbs let me run back and forth, quick, between water’s edge and our spot on the hill. My arms, legs and torso were utilitarian, sunbaked, and brown. We netted and named twenty minnows one night, the blonde down hair on my legs collecting dry, caked mud. I was late for dinner for the first time. When I barged in on my family quietly forking at the dinner table, my older sister said I looked like a bear. I didn’t care. I had caught and named twenty swimming, baby fish before sunset. This is what my body let me do.

*

At twenty- four, I tutor Jade, a fourteen-year-old who does Pilates every Saturday with a private trainer, who wears Manolo Blahnik heels for her Confirmation in the photo her mother texts me. Her mother, Vera, enters a security code, opening the door for me on a Wednesday at four.

“Don’t you look pretty!” she says.

“Thank you,” I say, walking towards our tutoring table. I set my bag down next to the neat pile of college-ruled paper and the row of sharpened pencils.

“You should curl your hair like that every day.” Vera’s eyes are wide and eager.

“It just takes so long.” I adjust and re-adjust the row of pencils waiting for Jade.

Vera vigorously nods her grinning face.

I tuck a curl behind my right ear, considering adding thirty minutes to my morning routine.

*

I coast down the interstate on a Monday when I hear a fifty year old woman on NPR discuss how her sexual desires have dwindled to nothing.

“I don’t know why I feel this way,” she says.

I turn up the volume knob with one hand on the steering wheel. I listen to the NPR host explain Sprout Pharmaceuticals, how past drugs for female libido have focused on increasing blood flow to the genitals, but how this one focuses on the brain.

Cindy Whitehead, Sprout’s CEO, explains that it’s about restoring balance.

The FDA has rejected the drug twice, citing that there wasn’t much evidence it works.

Whitehead argues that there is evidence, that it’s increased sexual desires in women by fifty-three percent, and that the FDA is holding the drug to a higher standard than the same kinds of drugs made for men.
I turn the volume louder as cars rush past me.

Terry O’Neill explains that we live in a culture that has discounted the importance of sexual pleasure and desire for women, that she fears this cultural attitude where men’s sexual health is extremely important but women’s sexual health is not.

I pick at my fingernails and crack my neck. My heart rate rises. I imagine the FDA sitting at a conference table debating the female body and what works. I think of how I’m only twenty-four. I think there must be something wrong with me. And of Pam Houston’s essay in which someone asks her: Is there some good reason you’ve convinced the rest of your body that your hips and stomach and pelvis don’t even exist?

*

In the fall of seventh grade I decided to “go punk.” This meant cutting my jeans with Billie and writing lyrics in permanent marker over almost every inch of them. This meant buying black Converse sneakers from the Journeys at the mall and rolling them in the dirt until the whites were less noticeably new. This meant obsessing over Jesse Lacey and Conor Oberst, men older than me who used a straightener to flat iron their black bangs. Or Chris Carraba with his brooding brows and gelled faux hawk. This meant going to Warped Tour and asking a tall dude with one-inch gauges to lift me up over the crowd and pass me forward so I could surf to the stage. This also meant trying to be okay when I heard the grown men yell “flip her over!” as they passed me up, groping the front of me.

*

My body feels like it’s against me most of the time. Whether in the neck or the shoulders, the stomach, or the brain. My fingers dig into muscles, looking to relieve the buried bulbs of pain, the knots that have rolled themselves into existence. I think this digging just makes it worse, but I do it anyway. My temples pound with the weight of bricks. Migraines fog my nights. My boyfriend offers me a massage. But after, when he pulls softly at my hips, I turn.

“I just need sleep. Maybe that will help my head.” I roll over on my side, hugging my legs together in a self-preserving ball.
*

I wait on Jade’s doorstep on a Tuesday. Their front yard fountain splashes water into itself. I wear Nike sneakers, exercise pants, and a Ghandi T-shirt. My hair is rolled in a bun and I haven’t got a lick of makeup on. Vera’s frame approaches, her arm reaching right to enter the security code before she opens the glass patterned door.

“Come on in.” she says. “Would you like some coffee? An espresso from the club?” She squints at me, her nose slightly wrinkling. She looks as if she’s examining my freckles. “You look tired.”

“I’m fine. Just school and work.”

I’m not tired. This is how I look without makeup. This is my skin; translucent with blue veins beneath my eyes, with uneven, red tones swimming across my cheeks. These are my eyes; plain like the days when I played kickball on my street, the eyelids that were oiled when Anthony picked Dare and kissed me on the trampoline. These are my lips; flat and cracking from my teeth that bite them, that peel layers off when I’m nervous.

Next time I will wear something different.

*

Dr. Mulloy sits across from me in a lowly lit office, her reddish brown hair sitting in a blunt cut on her collar bones. I’m here because my boyfriend and I have been fighting, because of a distance that I’ve created. She lets me choose what we talk about, so I pull out the list of possible topics I’ve jotted down:

-Student who is giving me trouble in class

-Stress while trying to find a doctor

-My parents’ divorce

I go with the doctor issues; this is a safe place to start. I tell Doctor Mulloy about the frequent UTIs, how they often come after sex, how, as a consequence, they make me avoid engaging.

“Are there other reasons you don’t want to engage in sex?” she asks.

I’m quiet. My eyes shift to the corners, to the tissues next to me on my left. To the spot past her right shoulder, where her pens are sitting in a cup on her desk.

“Have you ever brought yourself to orgasm?” she asks.

I look out the window into the graying parking lot, noticing the yellow that paints the air like some mustard-gassed war storm. “I’ve never had a physical relationship with my body,” I say.

Dr. Mulloy nods. “Growing up, it’s not discussed but then you’re expected to one day have this sexual understanding of your body.”

The session is an hour long. She asks me questions, trying to steer the conversation to a place of insight that only I can find. I take notes in a lavender notebook.

She tells me to be mindful of my body, to balance the positive thoughts with the negative thoughts. I realize I spend a lot of time listing my ailments like I’m proud of the migraines, the knots in my shoulders, the ulcers in my stomach, the lesion in my brain. It’s as if I’m happy to offer up my symptoms, hoping they’ll excuse me from having to deal with the thoughts that caused them, these manifestations I’ve created out of ignoring the case that holds me. She tells me to be aware of gratitude, to say thank you to the body for letting me write words and think thoughts and walk across campus, to teach others. She tells me to think of what my body lets me do. To start small; it’s not about going zero to sixty. It’s about recognizing what feels good. Do you like to wrap yourself up in a soft blanket? Do you like hot cups of tea with honey and lemon? Yes. Yes, I do. Does it feel good when your hands rest on your skin?

“A lot of this makes sense,” I say. “I get the balancing thing. I should be more positive when I’m looking—”

“No, not looking. This is not visual. This is physical.”

*

I stopped kissing my family when I was thirteen. My mother hugged me while I let my limp arms hang by my side. I turned my cheek, wiping any wetness after anyone planted their lips on me. I think this is when I stopped living in my body.

Every Sunday was Switch Day where my sister and I packed our clothes and toiletries back into our suitcases that grew larger every year with additional pairs of shoes and bags of makeup. On Switch Day, we’d migrate back to Mom’s or Dads like pre-pubescent Sherpas. I never put any of my things away. My items lived in the suitcase that I pulled from as needed. This was fine. This was not a big deal. Packing was easy.

I lived with my friends. In their cell phone texts, in their IMS, in their pink bedrooms with white teddy bears, with doors closed. I couldn’t be without them, or someone else to make me feel less alone. Then I lived with boyfriends. And as a girl with a pretty face and a full body that came before many other girls’, it wasn’t hard to find guys who wanted to spend time with me. Who wanted to fill the hole where family was uprooted. Who looked at my body and said Yes. Who said No, I will not leave you. I saw it as a simple exchange. Make me forget what it’s like to grow up shuffled between parents who only politely say hello from the doorframe. Make me forget when I was six, when Mom and Dad let me choose Ho Ho’s Chinese for dinner, when we sat around the table listening to James Brown. Make me forget that once, we were a family unit, that now we are fragmented in separate cells. Then, you can have me.

By fifteen, my body was not for me. Yes, utilitarian, but for ulterior motives.

*

When Vera opens the door, her back and shoulders are poised. Her shirts are white, her hair subtly highlighted and makeup on full. She wears a red lip while asking what she can grab for me to drink. She wears a William Sonoma apron as she pulls a roasted chicken from the oven. She asks questions about school: What are you getting your degree in? Will you be able to be a professor after that? The next time I tutor, she asks me the same questions about school because she’s forgotten or she didn’t care to remember.

What she does remember is how my boyfriend gave me a diamond from Tiffany’s. How elegant I look when I show up in new glass frames, clear ones that show more of my eyes.

“Did you do something different?” She gestures a circle around her nose. I think she’s trying to ask me if I’ve had work done.

I tell her three times: “I got new glasses.”

*

In eighth grade, Billie and I danced and scream-sang in her bedroom. We blasted Vindicated and yelled the emo lyrics across the room with appropriately dramatic hand gestures and jumps. Billie didn’t care who saw her forcefully thrusting her hips or whipping her hair. I let go to some extent but was still concerned with how strained my neck might look or what her sister’s friends would think if they saw me bouncing like a maniac.

I liked Chris Carraba because he sang about how stupid it was that guys asked other guys if they scored or not.

“He’s so different,” I said to Billie as we scrolled through photos of him on the Internet, eyes transfixed on his brooding brows and sculpted hair.

*

On a Thursday, Jade opens the door in a green romper that barely covers her butt. She has legs for days and dark brown hair parted in the middle. Her freshly manicured nails are pointed and nude. She doesn’t do neon or any color I thought kids were into.

“Sorry to keep you waiting,” she says before turning her lightly tanned back. She carries her frame and her hands like they’re breakables.

“I wasn’t out here too long,” I say, clicking forward on the marble tiled floors in tan heels. Today I don black ironed dress pants and a crisp, blue blouse.

“I love your outfit,” Jade says without looking at me. She struts forward into the kitchen, flipping her long straight hair past her neck.

I can’t believe she is fourteen, that her nails are always done. I wonder if they are paper thin underneath the plastic. Where does she get them done? I ask, writing down the name of the place, pretending I can keep up before we start on her History paper.

*

My friend and I walk up to Dos Gatos handing our IDs to the bouncer in a white buttoned down and black vest. He stands with his legs spread apart, like someone preparing for jumping jacks. He takes my ID, looking down at the pictured face, the name, the birth date. He looks me in the eyes, squinting with fake suspicion. He seeks this mini encounter with two younger girls out of boredom and control, I assume. He nods, giving us the OK to enter. My friend and I strut in heeled boots to the middle of the bar, catching glimpses of head turns from the corner of our eyes. The bar is full of thirty-somethings and it’s almost one; we understand we are new faces around here.

After the offered free shot from the man who could be our Dad, we decide to dip. Outside, I scan the front of the bar for the address in order to call the cab. The bouncer is so still he hides beneath the awning’s shadow and says:

“123 E Forsyth St.”

As I enter the address in the cab-app, he adds: “You’ve got a great set of legs. Whatever you’re doing, keep doing it.”

“Thank you.” I say, without looking up. I pretend to be consumed by the phone glow.

*

The sun slides down the receding tree line. I keep my eyes ahead with one hand on the wheel. The other hand I let rest on my upper thigh. My thoughts are intentioned: My thighs are soft. They feel nice. My legs let me stand for hours while I teach. I don’t like—No. Reroute. I like how they are soft.


*


A friend and I chug beers at the venue where my boyfriend’s band is playing. Another band plays the same kind of pop punk we were so fond of as angsty teens. We sway our hips and nod with the thick reverb. The heavy vibrations fill my chest, almost making it harder to breathe.

“This is so high school,” I say.

“I know, right?” My friend says.

My thoughts are intentioned: Don’t sway your hips for the guys behind you or the pair of black haired girls who have been eyeing you from the edge. They’re too scared to dance. It doesn’t matter, stop comparing. How do you want to move your hips? What feels good for you?

Muscles relax. I try not to think of what my stomach looks like from the side or how my butt looks from the back, cropped in these jean shorts. The singer strums a cover of a song I used to know intimately. It’s only been ten years, but I can’t place the words. I’m surprised I forgot the lyrics or even the name of the song. Vindicated? I know every vocal turn, but my tongue can’t keep up. My friend knows this one from her youth, too; She sways forward with careless arms and no concern for who is watching. We fumble to yell the parts we remember, though our voices can’t be heard over the pulsing shreds coming from the amps.

We scream the sentiments.

We are flawed. But we clean up well.

*

Sometimes in the car, I let the windows down, preferring the Florida heat over the stuffy conditioned air. Sometimes on these rides, I remember when my hair was long and tangled as it blows forward around my face, like those muddy days at the lake, when I caught and named minnows. When the only thing I had to think about was getting home on time. When I wasn’t thinking about all of my mirrors who judge my height with quiet eyes, who comment on my alertness based on level of applied makeup, who think they owe me the piece of advice about my haircut. When I wasn’t concerned about what the man behind me in the stairs thought of my calves as I climbed. Sometimes I remember summer. When the sun sat fat and melted everything around me. When I ran with rugged legs, when no one knew my body but me.

______________________________

Annalise Mabe is completing an MFA at the University of South Florida, where she writes poetry and nonfiction. Her work has been featured in The Offing, Animal, Proximity, and elsewhere. She reads poetry for Sweet: A Literary Confection and is a poetry editor at Saw Palm: Florida Literature and Art. She lives in Tampa, Florida, where she teaches composition and creative writing at USF.