A Corridor of Hands
The first man I slept with told me that my hair was like a woman’s. His name was Jonathan, but I never spoke his name. As I straddled him, tongues of my hair reached for his face and covered my own. Strands of my hair got caught in his mouth. I remember the way he used to pull me from him. He inspected my hair in the light. The weak light of those terrible hotel lamps, the ones between the beds. Those lamps that curve right out of the wall. Walls dressed with some terrible floral wallpaper. As he looked at my hair, it was like he was trying to figure out who’s it was, as if he wasn’t sure it belonged to me. I wonder if he’s still pulling parts of me from between his lips.
Grandma taught me how to sew. She taught me most everything. Not the dirty stuff. That I learned on my own. I only had one living grandma when I was born. Charlene. My mama left me with her. My pops likely doesn’t know he has a son. It’s not sad. My mama knew what she was capable of, knew that Grandma could do more for me. In being given away, I was given a gift. Grandma Charlene taught me how to make beautiful things from thread, from the scraps she’d lift from the dime store she worked at. Spiders make their homes from threads, she’d say. They look like nothing to some, but if you catch a web from the right angle, they gleam. She’d cross-stitch little houses with green lawns and yellow suns and a God Bless Our Home stretched across the sky. I was no good at that stuff, but whatever I managed to make, she called beautiful. I can fix a tear in a shirt though. Or reattach a button to a pair of jeans. Grandma always said: If you can’t fix the little things, how the hell are you going to fix the big things, Julien?
I used to see a therapist. That was before I turned eighteen. We could afford it then. After Grandma took a second job as a receptionist at the Four Holes Indian Clinic. I scavenged extra shifts at the Waffle House. We made it work. I was happy my therapist was a woman, happy she was about the same age as my grandma, happy that she wasn’t white. Her last name was Castillo. Luci Castillo. A clean-sounding name. She rented a space in a town called Wide Awake, about twenty minutes from us in Ridgeville, about 30 minutes from Charleston. Her office was in the same strip mall as the salon my grandma went to blacken her hair. It was a little brick building. The woman I told my secrets to was sandwiched between a deli and a drug store. I was just happy there was more than a wall between my secrets and Grandma’s dye-job. Though still always nervous she could hear somehow.
I was born in Ridgeville, South Carolina, in the house that my mother was raised in, but there were never any pictures of her on the walls. Grandma took them all down when my mama walked out on us. Grandma said she burned them all too, but I don’t know if I believed that. She must have kept a picture of her only daughter. I never looked for it though.
I take people places. That’s how I make a living now. Grandma gave me her old car when I turned eighteen. A 1989 Honda Civic. It still smells like her Newports, but I keep it clean, so people tip well when they leave me. Passengers see the make and model of my car on their phones, see the picture of me I uploaded, so they know who to expect. It’s a picture of me that Jonathan took the night after he bought us a nicer hotel room. Cropped everything but my face, so they can’t see that the rest of me is naked. Only that I’m smiling. Happy even. I’ve been told I have a kind face. It helps. I don’t have to talk often. I let passengers pick the radio station. Usually that’s enough.
The summer that I turned eight, I brought my grandma a blue stone I had found while climbing a tree. She was always wearing that color blue. Earrings, necklaces, bracelets. Even her favorite church dress was that color. That summer, she’d bought me a huge Super Soaker for my birthday, so I thought I’d get her a gift too. Grandma, look. She set down the silver she was polishing and took my small hand in her own, peering down at my gift. She sighed. Her breath smelled like pine needles. That’s a bird, she said. And now, she’ll never meet her mama. I shook my head. The bird is in there, she said. See how the shell is the color of the sky? I told her we could put it back. We could give her back to her mama. Touching her changed her too much. We can’t give her back now. Tears pricked my eyes. I asked her if she was sure. We took her gift out back and buried it beneath the tree I found it in.
One of the first things Luci Castillo told me was that I should keep a dream journal. She also told me that I should drink less. Told me that when I wanted to push a river from my arm, I should run instead. Just run until you forget. More often than not, it was too damn hot to run. But my dreams are vivid. As are my desires. I didn’t drink less. I didn’t run. But I kept the dream journal. Sometimes I wonder if Jonathan has one too. I wonder if his dreams come in full color, full heat. I wonder if, for every time I didn’t speak his name, he comes as a flash in my dream, his name bleeds from my pen. I wonder if I have ever spoken his name in my sleep.
Grandma never said much about my mama, but she did tell me that we had our nightmares in common. She said my mama would have terrible dreams, that she would wake up screaming. Sometimes, the nightmares wouldn’t even go away when she woke up. They would follow her. She would wake up, clawing at her arms, like she was trying to drag the terror out of her skin.
The time Jonathan wrapped his arm around my shoulder at the movies, I wondered if it was a mistake. If he had forgotten that I was not his wife. That I was half his age. No man had ever touched me like that out in the open. Aren’t you afraid? I asked. I don’t really find ghosts all that scary, he answered, talking about the film. I let him leave his hand there, not knowing that those touches would become what I would hunger most. His fingers running over the perfectly straight lines I traced into the skin of my shoulders, unflinching.
I used to talk in my sleep. Not sure if I still do. No one is there to tell me. Grandma used to write down what I’d say, if it was discernible. Once, I asked her why. You never know who’s talking through you. Never know if they know stuff you don’t. I must have said something one night. Something that frightened her enough that she made me start seeing Luci. I wonder if Grandma wrote that down. After Grandma passed on, I found the book. I know it is filled with a language that I’m unaware of in myself. I keep it next to my dream journal, in the glove box. But I haven’t opened it.
I told Luci how I went to see Jonathan the night he got too drunk, but I didn’t tell her his name. He called the landline. Thank God I beat Grandma to the phone. Jonathan said he was going to leave his wife, that we were going to run away together. He told me he loved me. He told me he was going to kill himself. That he had the pills lined up on the side table, next to a nearly empty whiskey bottle. I rushed to his room at the Motel 6. I looked for the pills before I even looked at him. They were there, close and white as perfect teeth against the faux wood of the table. Jonathan was sprawled on the bed, naked. He asked me to get naked too. I said no, my eyes still hot with tears from the drive over. He asked me to cuddle. I said yes. I laid on his chest, fell asleep, and woke up with him tearing my clothes off. He was on top of me, he was heavy. My clothes were tearing, my skin was tearing. When I stopped talking, Luci was still writing. She asked me if I said no, and I told her yes.
Growing up, it seemed like all the other kids at school had mamas or daddies or both. The kids who had both would draw their parents holding hands in art class. I would watch their parents hug and kiss and smile at each other when they got picked up after school. I wanted to know if mine were like that. If my parents ever did those things. I think I was five or six when I asked Grandma if my mama loved my pops. I know it was summer. That cotton wisps drifted through the air like ghosts. That the cicadas were screaming. I remember how they filled the silence, and how Grandma said nothing.
Here is my rape fantasy: I’m in a dark alley, and the knife of some shadowed man glints in the starlight. He tells me to turn around, to bend over, he tells me that he doesn’t want to hurt me. I walk into the knife. Feel it plunge into my belly. I then guide the dark hand with my own, cutting up to the sternum, just a few inches from my heart. I step back, and the man who wants to force his way into me is frightened now. I hook my fingers into the gash and strip my skin off the way I might slip off a jacket. I step toward the man, who has now dropped his knife, and pull him into me. My ribs, like jaws, consume him. He drowns in my body.
Grandma Charlene always smoked, even after all the times she said she’d stop. Whenever I called her out—times when she was supposed to be on the wagon—she’d say: Calm your britches, Julien. I’m just praying. You know you need a little tobacco to pray. There was something holy about it. Not holy in the churchgoer way that Grandma tried to instill in me, but the other kind of holy I knew. The kind that came from our Indian blood. Whenever I had an earache as a boy, she would light a cigarette, and beckon me. She’d take a big inhale, whisper stories into my ear, and the smoke would waft into me and ease the pain. Her hushed voice lapping against the rocky edges of the hurt—blanketing, smoothing.
Dreamed of apple trees. Of burning ropes. Of drowning in mirrors. Dreamed of a deer broken open in the middle of the road. Dreamed of glass raining down to kiss me. Of men that my brain cobbled together. Of sewing my body closed with silver. There I was, in a dream, walking through a corridor of hands.
I am controlled through the hips. Perhaps the birthmark there is a map to my heart. Instructions for how to use my skin. Jonathan learned how to read it. Plant a kiss on each side. Place hands there, firmly, and pull me in. Apply soft pressure. That is the best kind of presence. But, sometime after he fell in love, Jonathan forgot the language. His love became an excuse to use me. I was no longer a thing to be learned, but a thing to be taught. I rewrote the instructions, again and again, down his back with my nails. But he never looked back.
I started smoking after Grandma Charlene stopped breathing. She always warned me that I wouldn’t be able to stop if I ever started, but I needed her medicine after she left me. What was left of her after that day was all in me. I was all I knew of her after that day.
Dreamed of my mother, her face imagined.
Jonathan’s eyes were my grandma’s favorite color. They still are. As I stand by her grave—all the family I know, beneath me or above me—I hope she can wear the sky.