by Liz Shine
I had made some mistakes, but none worse than the stubborn and persistent tamping down of desire. Here I lived, in the age of excess and indulgence, of MTV and designer jeans, and I couldn’t think of anything better to do on a day off from work than to spring clean the house, with Melissa away at summer camp for the week.
On a June Saturday, I was washing all the windows in the house with ammonia and old newspapers like my mother taught me. The page I used to clean the sliding glass doors off the kitchen had an ad for New Coke. The house lit up like a cathedral at noon, and the scent of the neighbor’s jasmine wafted in through the open door.
When I was nine or ten, someone bought me a journal with a lock and key. I think it was Aunt Bea. It must have been Aunt Bea, who is now off in Mexico drinking tequila sunsets with a lover who she says is teaching her how to unlock her poetry one language trick at a time. A journal with a lock and key, an apt symbol for how I had lived my life thus far in the service of. . . what? Of being “good”?
We lived in a small yellow house my ex-husband helped us find when he decided to marry one of the women he fucked during our marriage. I knew about the affair; it wasn’t the first. We just didn’t discuss it. I thought that our silence implied an agreement that there was a line that couldn’t be crossed, a marriage line. I hated the pale-yellow color, the tiny, un-private backyard, but at the time of divorce, I had no will to look for a place of my own. Now, we are settled and happy enough. Or so I thought.
It’s amazing how quickly five years can disappear, how a person can follow one habit to the next to get through a day, then a week, then a month, then a year. I’m exaggerating, of course, but that is how it feels sometimes. I felt less this way when Melissa was little and still invited me to share in her childish wonder. She was not even twelve yet when she turned moody and no longer invited me to hula hoop, or to collect rocks, or to build forts with all the extra sheets in the house.
She stayed in her room with her door closed. I battled with her about taking dishes in there to eat on her bed while she watched TV or listened to the radio. The TV was a gift from her Dad, and I should have put my foot down when she brought it home, but I didn’t. Now we each have our own TVs, an expanse of space, and a door between us.
I scrubbed the floors on my hands and knees, washed the windows, and washed all the grimy parts of the wall, the doorknobs and light switches too. I felt a bit light-headed from the effort and ammonia, which is why on my way downstairs from the bedrooms, carrying a basket of dirty sheets, I missed a step and fell, landing in a tangle at the bottom of the stairs. My ankle twisted for sure, and it hurt, but I could probably walk it off. I hobbled toward the living room, but each time I tried to step down on my right foot, pain shot through. I sunk into our old brown recliner and considered my predicament. Not just the predicament of being alone in a house with a twisted ankle already swollen to three times its size, but also the predicament that was my life as it had turned out thus far.
I clicked on the TV. A man and woman fought in overwrought voices. Then, they made up. The man pulled her into the bedroom, then the camera zoomed in on a closed door suggestively. Cut to a woman picking a lock on an office door to snoop through files. I watched in numb fascination through to the catchy theme song that closed the episode. I checked the TV guide. Five more soaps would follow. I settled in.
Hobbling on one foot, using one hand to steady myself on furniture, the wall, the counter, I made my way into the kitchen where I put together three bologna and cheese sandwiches, extra mayo. I carried the plate and a bag of Doritos back to the recliner. When the last soap ended, not a crumb of food remained, but I still felt so unsatisfied. I hobbled back to the kitchen and made more: a Hungry-Man and three individual cups of chocolate pudding. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d eaten in this way, though I had often done so in high school, cramming my fingers down my throat to hurl it all up after.
I hobbled into the bathroom and tried to kneel on the floor by the toilet. I struggled to find a position that didn’t hurt my ankle. The force of the vomit brought tears to my eyes. Though I had a sense that what I did was sad and desperate, I felt relaxed and empty of all care.
The TV turned low caught my attention at the line, You too can manifest your deepest desires! I hobbled to the living room, found the remote, and cranked up the volume. The woman on the screen spoke in a honeyed voice and beckoned with one bangled hand. “Stop resisting,” she said. “There is no better time than now.” I furniture-walked to the cordless, snatched it up, and took it back to my seat. As soon as the woman said, “Call now! Your psychic is standing by,” I dialed.
Senior year, I dated a boy named Jimmy whose parents played poker with my parents on Friday nights. My mom did not approve of Jimmy, said his parents were a bit modern for her taste. Morality is just unpopular these days, Mom clucked. I wasn’t sure what she meant by all that, but I did know that my mother had a reputation for being smug and morally superior.
So, didn’t the two truths cancel each other out?
Jimmy seemed to like me and I thought by the way he put one arm around my shoulder while he drove that I could probably love him even though he smelled like onion soup and spat on sidewalks and out his car window.
The night he took me to the drive-in to see Easy Rider, I didn’t even consider saying no when he slid his hand up my thigh, slid his fingers into my underwear.
“Does that get you hot?” He breathed into my ear.
“Yes,” I lied. I did know that this is how things were expected to go, plus I wanted him to like me, to not think I was a prude. A bolder me would have told him to move his finger an inch to the left, or better yet, moved it for him.
The sex part hurt, but I bit my lip and closed my eyes. It felt good when he’d touched me at first, but then it hurt and he was on top of me and I could barely breathe the way I was pinned against the seat. When he pulled out, he shot semen all over my favorite blue summer dress.
I assumed this would mean we were going steady, and I’d get another chance to have sex and maybe this time like it. Jimmy canceled our next date because he said he had to study for a test. For days, he was never home when I called. Then Grace let it slip that he’d taken at least three other girls that she knew to the same spot, for the same reason, with the same result.
“What were you thinking?!” Grace asked me when I burst into tears. “That he was going to marry you or something?”
The psychic who clicked on the line didn’t sound anything like the one on TV. She smacked her gum and in a raspy voice said, “What is your deepest desire?”
“I don’t know,” I stuttered, unable to pinpoint an answer to this question. Was I supposed to know? Did other people know theirs?
“I am sensing you are lost. You don’t know because you packed your desires up and put them in storage a long time ago.”
I nodded, listened. Tears wet my cheeks.
“It’s time to open that box, take all the contents out, and examine them one by one. I sense you are on the precipice of great change. Just what kind of change that is will be up to you.”
A squawking voice cut through the line to announce that if I wanted to add two more minutes, I should dial seven to accept the charge. I pressed my finger into the seventh rung on the rotary and pushed it to the right. It clicked back into place.
I felt the press of time.
“But what if I can’t change?”
She laughed. Her voice cracked. “Change is inevitable. In your case, you will change or you will not. But if you do not, your spirit will stay dormant and one day die.”
The squawking voice again. Had it been two minutes already? I dialed nine to end the call. A recorded voice, the one from the TV, broke in. “Thank you for your call. Please call back if we can further assist you in manifesting all that your desire.”
I did need further assistance, but I didn’t call back. I do realize a TV psychic is no guru, but I have been unpacking my attic ever since. So, there is that. I’m no longer living in that damn yellow house, for one.