Short Takes

The Mooring Hour When Sky is Nearer Than Skin, acrylic and carved wood,
by Holly Lane, www.hollylaneart.com

 

Introduction: Secrets, Secrets, Secrets

Should a government keep secrets from the public? It is a question one would think never need be debated again. Good governance and secrecy have proven over and over to be at opposite poles. Whatever the originally benign reason for official secrecy, the consequence, somewhere down the line, is, inevitably, somebody realizing that secrecy gives him the perfect cover to do something illegal, or cruel, or greedy, or mean, or downright dumb. And he does it. 

 

Secrecy gave the generals who prosecuted the war in Vietnam the opportunity to pretend the U.S. wasn’t losing the war; it gave them the temerity to suggest that the U.S. and the weak and corrupt South Vietnamese government that the U.S. championed might even win the war – and not only the war but also the hearts and minds of the citizens of Vietnam. 

Secrecy enabled the FBI to keep, for many years, extensive dossiers on just about everybody J. Edgar Hoover, and his successors in office, disliked. And that included almost everyone who wanted to change American politics and society for the better. The most famous example was Hoover’s salacious request to his troops to bring him a list of every woman the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. might have slept with.

For over a decade after 9/11, the NSA and other government agencies secretly collected telephone logs and texts, recorded phone conversations, and tapped into the servers of Facebook, Google, and other internet companies to spy on people’s audio and video chats, photos, emails, and connection logs. The government’s spying focused not just, or even primarily, on suspected terrorists or criminals, but on ordinary, law-abiding citizens. The surveillance eventually extended to include the leaders of America’s closest allies, like Germany’s Angela Merkel.

Far from being praised for bringing the government’s secret, unlawful activities to light, the whistleblowers have been widely condemned, criticized, and threatened with prosecution and imprisonment. Daniel Ellsberg has said he expected to spend the rest of his life in prison after turning over the Pentagon Papers, which revealed the web of government and military lies, secret decisions, and misstatements that had prolonged the Vietnam War, to the New York Times and the Washington Post. He was saved from almost certain conviction and incarceration only because a mistrial was declared when it turned out the Nixon administration had illegally (and secretly) broken into the office of his psychiatrist, hoping to find information that would discredit him.  

In 2013, Edward Snowden, following Ellsberg’s example, sent evidence of the NSA’s widespread spying on innocent civilians to The Guardian and the Washington Post; he was immediately charged with theft of government property, unauthorized communication of national defense information and willful communication of classified communications intelligence. Facing up to thirty years in prison, Snowden left the country, traveling first to Hong Kong and then to Russia, where he still lives.

When governments do things in secret, you can bet that, most of the time, they aren’t doing anything good. And yet, as the almost kneejerk (mis)treatment of whistleblowers demonstrates, politicians, public servants, and, of course, government spies still insist that governmental secrecy is needed now and then.

And if it seems, at least to some, that governments should be allowed to have their secrets, imagine how much more complicated it is to decide whether secrecy is good or bad in the private sphere. Is it a good thing for friends, family, colleagues to keep secrets from one another? Is it a bad thing to give away the secret that a friend or colleague or family member asked you to keep? 

These and similar questions are so pressing that we received over 150 submissions for this issue’s Short Takes section on Secrets. Given the abundant overflow of thoughtful, absorbing, well-written short takes, we decided to feature the topic in the issue you are reading today – and in the next issue (the Winter issue) as well. Even with that, and even though we are publishing considerably more short takes than usual in each issue, we are still unable to publish every worthwhile piece, and for that, we are most regretful. 

{Thank you, all, for your fascinating prose, poems, music, and illustrations. And many thanks to Cynthia Hogue, who reviewed the poetry, and to Naomi Stine, who helped me review the prose. Also to Elizabeth Zimmer for proofreading every page. It is no secret that Persimmon Tree could not happen without you.} 

 

 

 

Excerpt from MARIA DE BUENOS AIRES by Astor Piazzolla

 

 

The beautiful music of María de Buenos Aires, a tango opera by Argentinian composer Astor Piazzolla, belongs in this Short Takes company, because, though Piazzolla certainly never intended his opera to be a secret, it was one for many years, especially in the United States. Composed in 1968, it was not performed in this country until 1991. Much of the reason for its obscurity probably lies in the plot, which is absurdly surreal, even for an opera, but Ann Chase’s lovely rendition of its themes leads us to believe that it deserves to be played more frequently, just for the music alone. And it does seem, from the growing number of productions it has had recently, both in the United States and in Europe, that the secret may at least be out.

 

 

 

I Was Another Name for Fifteen Years

Gram never knew the truth, the secret we kept from her for fifteen years, from my birth until her death. But is it so bad to keep a secret that maybe saved her life, and gave her the will to live for another decade? It was a lie, somewhat minute, harmless, but a family secret nonetheless.

My paternal grandmother lived in Budapest, Hungary, when I was born in Buffalo, New York. Gram was ill and facing death at the time of my impending birth, so she wrote to my dad and asked nevezze el a babát utánam: that he name the first grandchild, if a girl, after her: Erzsebet – Elizabeth. So as not to disappoint her, my parents said they would honor her request, but instead gave me her name in the middle.

My grandparents emigrated to America when I turned three, and as soon as I could understand, my parents told me that when they came to visit, I was to be known as Elizabeth. As her namesake, I received special gifts from my grandmother; on one birthday, Gram gave me her four-leaf clover clip-on earrings, one clover yellow, one white, and two rose gold. On another occasion, I received a mustard-seed diamond necklace.

I believe my parents kept this secret from Gram because of the sacrifices she made. She lived in Budapest during the Communist takeover and many times disguised herself as an old woman so as not to be raped by the Gestapo. Oversize clothing and headscarf hid her blond curls, curvaceous figure, and rosy complexion. Her family often hid in the basement and had little food to eat.

Years later, at age fifty-one, she bid goodbye to her only child, my father, as he escaped from Budapest during the Hungarian Uprising and made his way to America, not knowing if she would ever see him again. Dad crossed the border into Austria, boarded a quota ship to the United States, and began his voyage to freedom. Five years later, then a husband and father, he brought his parents over to live in America. Gram left her city, her country, sacrificing the only life she knew, leaving family and friends to live in America for her remaining years: learning to speak English, adapting to new customs and culture. 

So I answered to another name for those fifteen years. I see it as respect for a strong woman who lived through true anguish, loss, and fear of capture. Many queens are named Elizabeth; the word carries elegance and beauty. Grandma, you were mine.
 

 

 

 

The Weight of a Secret

I should have known what was coming when you approached me with it. You could barely carry it with your two hands, hands much larger than mine. 
 
I thought we would have time to share it or to talk about it: who should know? Who already knows? Are you eventually going to share it with others? There was certainly enough to share. But you walked away with just the marks where you had held it on your hands.
 
Did you think I would be honored to carry this weight? That I was glad to be the “chosen one”?
 
I am not honored. I accepted this weight only because I care about you. I saw what a burden it had been.
 
It is too heavy to carry around all the time. I need to keep it in a safe place where I can go when I need to be reminded not to share.
 
You seemed to notice how difficult it is for me to keep this. You came and we talked about it. An attempt to share the weight? 
 
I hoped you were there to take it from me, to finally share it with others.
 
But you gave it back to me and again walk away.

 

 

 

 

High School Reunion

I opened the invitation. I had been waiting for it.

“Dear Mr. Carlos de la Garza: You are cordially invited to the Tenth Reunion of the R.J. Hensley High School Class of 2009.” I looked through the activities, which included the traditional picnic, baseball game, and dance in the high school gym. I was prepared for this occasion; I had already been scouring stores and online shops to find apparel which would signal how savvy, successful, and urbane I’d become.

After high school, I moved to Chicago to attend the University. I passed the bar exam and secured a lucrative position at a prestigious law firm. I was doing well. I could easily afford the plane fare to fly to the small town outside Peoria and select the most expensive accommodation among the five selections listed on the registration form. I had not attended previous reunions. I had unpleasant memories of my years at R.J. Hensley High School.

One of my vivid memories was of prom night. The queen and each princess wore elegant green gowns with modestly cut necklines, bodices which gently hugged their waistlines, and full-length skirts which flowed gracefully to the floor. But I observed that the gowns were not flattering on overweight Princess Susan McDonald, muscular Princess Maria Sanchez, dowdy Princess Alice Parsons, or skinny Queen Dora. Had no one told them that a dress that suits everybody suits no body well? I had tutored a few members of this royal entourage in calculus, physics, and advanced placement English. But none of them invited me to an afterstudy get-together. I was not considered date material.

During the half-time at football games, I played the trombone and marched smartly with the band. But I had to endure watching the Hensley High Steppers, whose dances seemed to have been choreographed by Hulk Hogan and whose costumes looked as if they had been purchased at The Tawdry Threads Thrift Shop.

I was an excellent conversationalist, knew how to make the girls laugh at my witty remarks, gave just the right advice when they related their problems with girlfriends or romances. But after the banter and counseling sessions, off they went.

Now I have decided it is time for me to not only attract their attention, but to gain their respect. I have successfully executed my ten-year plan. I do not intend to use this reunion to exact my revenge. My intention has been, and will continue to be, to express my natural, benign attempt to make things right, to embrace my new normal, to maintain my equilibrium, to fess up.

So I smiled and filled out the form to inform the reunion committee that Ms. Carla de la Garza accepts the invitation to attend the Tenth Reunion of the R. J. Hensley High School Class of 2009.
 

 


The Lazarus Hour, acrylic and carved wood,
by Holly Lane

 

 

Don’t Tell Anyone

Anne grew up with that admonition from her mother. Frustrating, especially when she wanted to share things with her best friend, Kate. But she obeyed. In high school, Kate whispered, “I need to tell you something. It’s a secret. My parents are getting a divorce.”

When Anne’s mother heard about the divorce, Anne feigned surprise. Felt guilty, but she had promised Kate.

The girls continued their friendship in college, although they attended different schools. One evening Kate called. Frantic. “Oh, Annie, I might be pregnant. I can’t tell anyone but you.” Lots of late-night phone calls. Finally, the I am not pregnant call. 

Anne shared confidences with Kate. She deplored her mother’s Don’t tell anyone. Instead, she would say, “Kate, just between you and me.” 

Once a mutual friend congratulated Anne on maintaining her college scholarship. “I know you were worried.” Anne had told no one except Kate, not even her parents. Anne let it pass. 

A year later, Kate let it slip that Anne was engaged. “Kate, I told you in confidence.” 

Kate hugged Anne, “I am so sorry. I was just so excited for you and Don. Never again.”

Within a year, Kate was married. The two couples got along well. The husbands played poker on a regular basis. Life was good.

One evening, Anne called Kate. “My life is falling apart.” 

Kate said, “I will be there in ten minutes.”

“Kate, I think Don is having an affair. For weeks, he has slept in the other bedroom. He gave some excuse about not waking me up with his cough. Funny, I hadn’t noticed much of a cough. What should I do?”

Kate was always good in these situations. 

“Anne, take your time. Don’t rush anything. Don loves you. There must be an explanation.” Anne felt a bit better, grateful for her trusted friend.

A couple of weeks later, after many tearful times together, Anne called Kate, laughing and crying at the same time. 

 “There is no other woman. Don accidentally stuck his finger in the lab at the hospital. He needed tests to rule out HIV contamination. He was too upset to tell me. Worried about infecting me. We are back in the same bed. Thank you, friend.”

When the two couples went out to dinner, Kate kissed Anne. Hugged Don. “I am so glad everything is okay. I told Anne that you were not fooling around.”

Anne was furious. How could Kate? 

Anne’s evening was ruined. She could not read Don. Is he upset with me? Certainly, he heard the comment.

At home, Don did not mention Kate’s comment. Good, thought Anne. We will talk about it in the morning. I am too upset.

All night, she lay awake, thinking about Kate. 

Afterwards, the friendship unraveled. 
 

 

 

 

Her Cross

Winter in a beach town is low on witnesses,
so we shot pool, we drank shots. She was a mother 
who got off and on her pedestal at will, who got down
low to play, torso parallel to cue stick. 
 
I’m Ruby Starr, she told a man 
who put up quarters. Rack ‘em. She broke, 
ran the table, tossed the cue,
let go a throaty Hah! and told him then
 
to get down on it, thrusting her crotch 
toward him, a hot little Sheila-na-gig. 
Outside the bar, a blizzard racked up inches, 
and the cops drove by, sirens breaking the spell
 
that keeps a banshee muzzled in her birth canal.
Cue the wails, the inner montage – bank-cam film 
of son in camo hat and aviator shades, pointing 
something at a teller. Blue lights. Cuffs. Station footage
 
of son sprawled with legs wide open on the bench 
as the older inmates prowl past him.

 

 

 

 

1986 Secrets

 I’m gonna take a little time
 A little time to look around me
 I’ve got nowhere left to hide
 It looks like love has finally found me
– Foreigner, “I Want to Know What Love Is.” Agent Provocateur, Atlantic Records, 1984.

 

Guilt weighed heavily on her as she sat alone in the living room. The song on the radio made her realize her inability to feel loved. 

When she was a child, uncaring adults left a gap in her soul. A hole bigger than when she’d tripped and stabbed the garden stake into her knee. The revealed vein pulsed in a repeated rhythm. Thinking about it, bile rose in her throat. She remembered how her older sister had opened the bathroom door and peaked at the wound with one eye. “Here, hold the skin together with this.”

The metal outer ring of the medical tape rolled onto the floor and spun in a lazy circle until it lay flat. Without help, she’d bitten off a strip of tape to hold a wad of white cotton smeared with sulfur ointment as protection against infection. 

Other family members hadn’t anything to offer. No hug, no touch, no wiping of tears.

This is how a feral child understands love.

Love… a word that has no meaning.

Self-love is only an amber in the folds of consciousness.

Today, she’d show love by cleaning, cooking, and mending. 

Later in the evening, she’d tell her husband about her childhood. She’d tell him how she felt trapped by his love. How it was easier to push away the foreign emotion. 

She baked his favorite cookies. 

Their aroma filled the sparkling kitchen. She resisted tasting one, knowing one would become the panful, and she’d have to make another batch to cover her compulsion. 

The meatloaf was in the oven and potatoes boiled. Yesterday’s yeast rolls would have to do. He’d look across the table with those chocolate eyes and thank her for such a good meal. 

Over dessert, she’d tell him. Or maybe afterward, as she washed the dishes. She’d ask him to sit at the table and listen. No, later in bed, when he rolled next to her for warmth. But she knew that soon his soft breath would become snores. 

Maybe in the morning? She’d talk to him when they woke to the alarm, and he pulled her close. His desire for her was greatest then. 

Or at breakfast, she’d tell him. Over fried eggs, she’d bring up the subject by saying how she wanted to reply when he said those words. Tell him of her secret desire to express love and to feel love the way others do. 

Instead, she fried the eggs and stirred cream in his coffee in silence. 

When he stopped to kiss her, he said, “Thanks for breakfast. I love you.” 

She stood in the doorway and whispered, “I love you too.” 

Today, she’d tell him when he came home from work. But…
 

 

 

 

Turning it Around

A month after my mother’s sudden death at age fifty-six, my father, my sister, and I began going through her personal belongings. 

My father was in a hurry to get everything settled. He was planning to marry a woman he had just met, a well-to-do divorcée from the Bronx. He and my sister would be living in her apartment with her two children, as I was already married with a little boy of my own. I came upon a box covered in pink floral paper and tied with a satin bow. A label said: PAULINE’S PERSONAL ITEMS. Quickly I grabbed it and, since my sister and father were busy sorting other things, took it into the bedroom. 

The latch on the box was loose. Rusted with age, it opened easily. There were a ton of papers, some letters still in envelopes, a birth certificate, and lots of photos. A few of me and my sister sitting cross-legged on the stoop of our apartment building in Brooklyn; we both had big bows in our curled hair and nicely starched dresses. My grandmother and grandfather in European dress when they first arrived from Romania; my mother and her two sisters in 1920s- style bathing suits, arms around each other and waving at the camera. I rummaged until I came across a faded photo of a man in a white button-down shirt open at the neck. His hair was thick and darker than my father’s, and his eyes had a deep, penetrating gaze. His lips were full with a slight curve at the sides that gave him a comical but innocent look. I took it out and stared at it for a few moments. Who was he? A family member? Maybe a cousin? I turned it around and there in large black swirling letters was an inscription: Dearest Pauline, you will always be my true love… Harvey. 

My heart skipped wildly and my hands trembled as I held it. I didn’t know much about my mother’s romantic life, except that she had been engaged to someone before my father – a musician with a clubbed foot whom my grandmother forbade her to marry in case she would have children with the same affliction. My mother loved music, sang and played the piano by ear, and perhaps found this man to be her true soulmate. But she would never defy my grandmother, who was a lovable but strong-willed woman, and so she broke off the relationship. Soon after that she met my father. He was tall, very thin and handsome, except for a broken nose from a thrown baseball. They married and by the time she was pregnant with me, he was drafted into the Navy. She lived with my grandmother until he returned and I was born. 

I couldn’t put the picture down. It was as if a piece of my mother’s past had somehow slipped into me. Was he the one? Harvey? What instrument did he play? She and my father had never been happily in love, a fact that was obvious to all. He was a stern, quiet man, taken to sudden fits of anger that always frightened my sister and me. She was a bitter, hysterical sort of woman who hobbled around on a leg prone to blood clots from diphtheria that had struck her as a child, leaving her with a leaky heart valve. So our home (a four-room apartment in Canarsie) had more than an element of doom. In time my mother never went out, except to visit her two sisters and my grandmother. My father did all the shopping and errands. Since we didn’t have enough room or money for a piano, her musicality began to wane. 

But Harvey… I turned the picture over and over as if I could regain that piece of my mother’s life. As if it could change anything, as if it could capture that playful part of my tortured mother who all those years had a place in the heart of this stranger.

The longer I stared at the photo the more my imagination was ignited – thinking of her in a ruffled dress and high heels, sheer seamed stockings, her curly dark hair pulled up with a red ribbon, her legs now free, swirling to a Chopin nocturne Harvey was playing on a shiny ebony baby grand. Her face would be glowing in ecstasy, her red lips smiling, her fleshy pale arms swinging in the air. She would go over to him and he would stop playing, look up and touch her rouged cheek with his long slender fingers. Then she would press her lips to his forehead until they moved down to his mouth and the kiss would be long and passionate as his hands moved from the piano keys to her waist. The sheets of music would fall to the floor.

I looked at the photo one more time before I crumpled it and threw it into the wastebasket. 

Find anything important? My father yelled from the other room over the sound of things tossed into boxes, and I said softly, only to myself, Just the life my mother should have had.
 

 


Ensouled Skies, acrylic and carved wood,
by Holly Lane

 

 

The Secret

she was two
she sat on my lap
her small arms 
across mine
her words soft winds
or fish bubbles in a stream
how brilliantly she spoke English
given her age
she leaned in
she asked me
if I could keep a secret
my ear tingled
as if it had been kissed
I said of course not knowing 
what would come next
the confession of
some night terror
or a prank she had played
a toy broken
a cat’s tail pulled
I worried I might
tell someone perhaps
her mother or let it slip
some night exchanging
intimacies with a friend
I considered my own secrets
the ones I tell no one still 
after all these years ashamed
but shame did not propel her
our exchange was rather 
all about the charm
with which she would draw me in
as a temptress holds out jewels
tresses or her tongue
was her secret about love?
was there one at all?
could I make out the whisper?
that molten confidence?

 

 

 

 

The Stash

As I trudge up the hill towards our house, I see that something is not right. My father’s Jeep is parked outside even though it’s a workday. Behind the screen door, the front door is wide open. Definitely not right.

The living room is a mess, the TV knocked over, books off the shelves, papers strewn about. The back door hangs splintered off its hinges. My mother’s face is white as she mops the kitchen floor. “Your father is in the basement checking the safe and his gun cabinet. We haven’t gotten to your room.”

My room? I pull both doors shut. Drawers are partially pulled out, clothes spilling out, even underwear. My closet door is thrown wide, dresses off the hangers, shoes missing partners. On the closet floor are the remnants of my keepsake miniature cedar chest with the lock broken. Heart pounding, I turn it over. Safe under the rubble are the packets of birth control pills. My secret, safe. 
 

 

 

 

Our Own May Crowning

Behind an apartment building in town, I found a fancy gown, lace edge protruding from a garbage can. Granny soaked and washed it in the kitchen sink, coaxed out all the stains except one gray swirl near the hem that looked like a fingerprint. After she sewed two tucks on either side of the waist, it fit perfectly. Row after row of satin ribbon encircled the skirt. Its stiff slip made it flare out. Short bell-shaped lace sleeves. I couldn’t stop staring at it, watching it flutter on the clothesline, shimmer in the sun – an angel floating. I named it Marcie after my mom who died last year, whispered her name as I touched the soft fabric, inhaled the soap scent.

Granny called the white material taffeta, which reminded me of the saltwater taffy our teacher, Mrs. Chelily, brought us from her Florida vacation – sherbet-colored candies I let melt in my mouth so they lasted longer, imagining the heaven it must be to walk on a beach along water that stretches as far as your eyes can see. We’re landlocked, Granny said – not a lake, river, or ocean anywhere near. 

She knew how upset I was that I didn’t get picked to crown Mary at our school’s May procession. She insisted we conduct our own ceremony. We picked all the wildflowers we could find while grasshoppers plopped around us, bees hummed, and the whine of insects rose and fell like the feeling I got listening to the violins in Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons that Mrs. Chelily played in class. 

I placed Queen Anne’s lace, dandelion puffballs, blue chicory, and daisies, bundled in a Mason jar, beside the Mary statue in Granny’s garden before placing a purple clover crown on her head. Granny crowned me with what she called a tiara, saved for the perfect occasion she knew would come around, “and this is it.” She grinned, hugging me easy so as not to crumple my dress. She’d taken a bus to her friend’s house across town to use her iron. 

I felt better for a while, but it didn’t make me forget what I overheard a girl say last week at school, as I passed a group clustered around their lockers: 

“You can’t crown the Blessed Virgin Mary if you live in a trailer and don’t have a father.” 

Or a mother, I could have screamed at them.
 

 


Cubiculum, gilded carved wood,
by Holly Lane

 

 

The Temple of the Smiley Man

Late May, in a basement classroom,
five students await their final exam
for English IIIA. Why just five?
This high school rewards all 
who maintain an 80 percent average
with a coveted honor:
 
sit in the cafeteria, make fun
of the test-takers, feel smart—
at least until you get to college.
 
While I carefully prepared the test
to cover all works we’d read,
I know these five might need laughs
of their own. We take the secret pledge.
 
No one shall tell what transpires this day.
 
They raise their right hands, swear in unison. 
I hand out each numbered exam 
with Scranton answer sheets 1 and 2.
 
To their still solemn, nervous, 
even a little scared, faces,
I announce the final ritual. 
 
It’s time for The Blessing.
 
I walk in measured cadence 
around the room, tap a book 
on the crown of each lowered head:
 
I give you the wisdom
of the smiley man.
 
The first initiate seems surprised,
but soon there are giggles and petitions
for extra anointment while scholars settle in 
to pencil one hundred empty spaces, 
solve the koan of two essay questions.
 
With the Dalai Lama’s book propped
at the front of my desk as icon,
I sit back, await the halfway mark
where students find their sensei’s 
last direction cloaked in test item 50.
 
One-by-one, I bow in response 
to each obedient wink and smile.

 

 

 

 

Princess Margaret Rose

My mother ordered her first rose bush from the Burpee Seed Catalog in 1949. I had watched her thumbing through the catalogs for months after supper at the dining room table, while I practiced my penmanship. She studied the pictures and read the descriptions of all the flowers and exotic plants with great care before finally deciding on roses. Gran, Grandpa, and I were happy to see her smiling and taking an interest in something, even a seed catalog. She had been sad for a long time, getting over the separation from my father and having to move us back home to live with them.

The rose bush Mother planted in the fall of 1949 was called the Princess Margaret Rose, named after the younger sister of Queen Elizabeth II. It was a hybrid tea rose with a mild fragrance. This hybrid had been created by crossing a Queen Elizabeth Rose with a Peace Rose, the combination resulting in a bush with luscious bright pink blossoms, often with as many as 30 petals on each bloom. 

Each year, Mother planted a new rose bush. They were named Tranquility, Fairy, Sleeping Beauty, China Doll, and Alba. I watched her down on her hands and knees the first week of September as she turned over the rich prairie loam of our backyard at 119 West Ash Street, getting the soil ready to receive her latest rosebush. She stopped when she had created a small garden of six evenly-spaced bushes that stood in front of the white lattice-work panel Grandpa had built for her. Fertilized with Miracle-Gro and pruned to perfection, the roses flourished, and she gradually shed her shroud of sadness.

In 1959, the year I was to leave for college in the fall, Mother called me out to her rose garden early on a Saturday morning in June. The roses were in full, fragrant bloom.

“There’s something I never told you about the Princess Margaret Rose, my first one, you know. Princess Margaret was born on August 21, just like you – a few years earlier, of course.”  And then she smiled.
 

 

 

 

Am I Still a Woman?

Five years ago when I broke my hip and had a full titanium replacement, I never expected to become disabled. Friends and acquaintances got hip and knee replacements with no visible outward change to their physical appearance. Knee scars fade with a tan and time and hip scars are hidden underneath clothes, though bathing suits can be tricky. 

At first, I leaned on a long-handled umbrella and sometimes a walking stick, fully aware that I wasn’t fooling anyone. These accessories were not really effective, but they allowed me to pretend I was hiding my inability to walk, though I couldn’t hide the persistent limp. Perhaps the unobservant didn’t notice, and I was sure those who did take a second look said under their breath, “There but by the grace of God … ” 

The decline from walking on my own to using a walker was especially discouraging, after years of physical therapy sessions and going regularly to a gym to work out and swim. After falling with serious injuries three times, I have graduated to using a rollator full-time to exercise, in an effort to strengthen my leg and correct my gait, to mitigate the chances of falling. The cane is now a distant dream, walking without help not even that. 

When I saw the three-time gold-winning Olympic swimmer with one arm who said he was told to get used to people staring, I decided to follow his example and do my best to ignore what I perceive as pitying glances. But none of that is my secret.

Societal age prejudice aside, because that stereotype never bothered me, for the first time in my life, at seventy, I am struggling to feel like a sexy, sensual woman. That … is my secret. For years I have been aware of this issue, because I have a good friend who has been in a wheelchair for decades. I marveled at how she always dressed as if she were still standing tall at her full six-foot height. Her eyes sparkled and her hair was cut and shaped to enhance her beautiful face. She wore clothing that revealed her figure and wore eye makeup to enhance her large green eyes. For years she had a dedicated boyfriend who competed with a more recent one, until one and then the other died. When she and I went out together, I often wondered, though I never asked, how she was able to pull herself together. Now, in a place I never imagined I would be, I wonder to myself: Does it matter if I put on a pretty blouse or skirt? Will anyone be enticed by my perfume? Will anyone look past the extra appendage that is not me? Will there ever be anyone who still sees me as a woman?
 

 

 

 

Things My Husband Told Me

When college fell apart I returned
my burgundy Mustang and joined the Marines.
 
I was in my new uniform when a friend called
to me in horror as I crossed a San Francisco street.
 
We marched through the City of Hue before
it was destroyed, and returned through the rubble.
 
I loved hearing Dionne Warwick as she
blasted over loudspeakers.
 
I jumped out of my well-dug foxhole
when an armadillo jumped in.
 
I felt warm as a baby in the arms
of the corpsman who carried me out with malaria.
 
We loaded body bags from the Forrestal fire
onto our hospital ship; there were more dead than they said.
 
They did not want black leaders but had
no choice after so many soldiers were killed.
 
The commander sat on the hillside as my
squad led this large Tet Offensive operation.
 
I told the radio man to go to the back but he said
I’m coming for you and slumped dead over my body.
 
Airlifted to a field hospital under gunfire I saw
a soldier strangle a wounded prisoner.
 
Jeered at home, I discarded my uniform and almost
joined the Weather Underground but married instead.

 

 


Gentle Muse, mixed medium, carved wood, graphite on Mylar,
by Holly Lane

 

 

Teen Secret

Fifteen years after it happened, I blurted out what I had done as an adolescent.

It began when my 70-year-old father and I were chatting about someone we both knew, and I said, “She needs therapy.”

“You know, I don’t believe in that stuff.” 

“I know, Dad, but therapy can be valuable. It saved your life.”

“That can’t be. I never went to therapy.” 

“I know; I did. As a teenager. And if I hadn’t gone, I might have killed you with my bare hands.”

“That can’t be. You were a minor; you needed my permission to go to a therapist.”

“You did sign,” I explained. “I told you it was college counseling offered by my high school.” 

 “You mean you lied to me? And how did you get free counseling? We had no money,” my father angrily demanded.

“My school counselor told me about a graduate psychology school that was looking for volunteer patients, so their students could practice. Anyway, Dad, it was only six sessions; she helped by just listening.”

“What was so bad that you had to go to a stranger to talk?”

“Well, Dad, Mom had just died. I was bereft, as well as lonely, hurt, and angry. To make matters worse, I started high school just two months after Mom died; it was a school where I knew nobody, and no one knew me. I wanted advice. And I needed a woman to talk to about changes and expectations involved with becoming a young woman. Mom had started to talk to me, but she was gone, and no one else volunteered.

“I was also accustomed to being helpful and independent. When you took over as the only parent, suddenly both my independence and helpfulness were not OK. You told me that as a young woman, it was too dangerous for me to be in certain neighborhoods. I felt untrusted, unvalued, and infantilized, since I was accustomed to doing things, like some of the family food shopping. Being independent filled me with pride when Mom was alive, but without her, my independence vanished. You wanted a daily accounting of what I did. I didn’t understand your concerns and you didn’t understand mine. Additionally, we were all mourning at the same time; you and my brother were clear that you wouldn’t talk about your grief and you didn’t want me to talk about mine.”

At this point, tears came down my face. 

To his credit, my father said nothing, but reached over and hugged me. We never spoke of that secret again.
 

 

 

 

The Things One Can Hold

The only things I can touch of my grandmother’s 
are two thin porcelain cups and saucers 
my mother brought with her to Ellis Island. 
She kept them in a box in the attic, among 
her Museum of Shattered Memories – buried so deep, 
she couldn’t name them during my childhood years. 
 
I couldn’t ask about my grandmother without my mother 
crying, so I learned to keep silent, finger the filigree 
on the side of the cup, the fragile flowers, the faint 
gold line around the rim, the pattern’s name 
too worn to read. I wanted my mother to tell me stories 
with her smoky breath, all the things she remembered. 
 
So much I could tell my mother now, these twelve years 
since she’s gone – all she’d shielded me from that I’ve 
found since, after sailing a ship backwards in time across 
the sea. I’ve stood on porches in those Slovakian towns, 
peeked into houses she’d entered, cried with the neighbor 
who’d survived the Camps, pored through letters unopened. 
 
I will leave one of my grandmother’s cups and saucers 
for each of my daughters. I will tell them stories 
about what I know, what I have learned. 
No secrets. No regrets for all left unsaid – 
taking all they can carry of me in their 
outstretched hands.

 

 

 

 

Don’t Flush

“Shhuuushhhh!!,” my husband whispered. I froze. 

It was 2 a.m. and deathly quiet. I was headed to the bathroom. He was still in the living room, wide awake, watching TV and having a high old time. The smell of marijuana tickled my nostrils.

“Shush?” I whispered back. “Why?”  

“Just be quiet,” he said. 

I told him I was going to the bathroom. As I turned to walk away, he warned me in a louder whisper, “DON’T FLUSH.” 

I paused to consider this request. This was decades ago and California was not in a drought. I hadn’t even heard the maxim yet, “If it’s yellow, let it mellow.” 

“Don’t flush – why?” He pointed to the wall and said, “Because the neighbors might hear.” 

I paused again, came up with the only reply I could think of, “And?” 

“Well, what will they think?”

“Umm, they’ll think someone had to pee?”  

He shook his head like he was trying to explain calculus to a toddler. “If they hear the toilet, they’ll think we’re up getting stoned.” 

Well, you can’t argue with logic like that.
 

As tempting as it was, I would live to regret it if I pointed out that he was up, getting stoned. And since he was stoned, debating his logic would go nowhere, so I nodded and quietly, quietly, proceeded to the bathroom, where I did not flush. 

Returning to the solitude of the bedroom, I lifted the shade to look out the window across the side lawn to the neighbor’s house next door. Yes, we lived in a house, not an apartment. 

I imagined what our neighbors’ lifestyle was like, if they really were up, listening, hoping against hope, to hear a toilet flush. And was it just our toilet they were listening for? Or did they eavesdrop on the house on the other side as well? I could see them holding variously sized drinking glasses up to the wall, listening for the best audio effects. Maybe they bought some of the spy paraphernalia advertised in the back of a comic book that claimed: “Hear conversations from a block away!” Even if they didn’t need assistive audio devices, and just had freakishly good hearing, there surely must be something more interesting they could do with it. 

I settled back down in bed, wrapped one arm around our cat and whispered to her, “Always remember, girl: Just because you’re paranoid, doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.” 
 

 

 

 

Brahms Intermezzo in E Major, Op. 116, No. 4

 

Brahms hid a secret inside this Intermezzo – an interlude within the interlude, so to speak. Did you hear it?

 

 

 

 

 

Self Portrait as Burned Bagel

No Wheat Thin,
but I have been singed, 
rubbed hot coils
the wrong way, lingered
too long in dicey, dead-end
alleys, useless debris
strewn everywhere.
 
My injuries, trivial
in the grand scheme of things,
this endless year 
of helicopter evacuations,
too few respirators,
playgrounds padlocked
beneath maimed orange sky.
 
Still, I whimper, flinch
from that dull knife
scraping, scraping.
I lie flat on the floor. 
Vertebrae and disks quarrel.
Tiny flecks of me
flutter like black snow.
 
I’m charred but salvageable,
soothed by butter, a dusting
of cinnamon and whimsy
especially here on the rug,
clean heirloom plate
beside that vase where
tap water gossips with iris.

4 Comments on “Secrets

  1. The Weight of a Secret… I know this feeling so well. I want to cover my ears sometimes and yell – this is your secret to keep not mind.

  2. I wonder, Gloria, if you would be open to me communicating with you regarding Canarsie. If so, please let the editors know. Thanks so much, Ellen

  3. These are all wonderful short takes. I am so curious where Gloria Murray lived as I also grew up in Canarsie. Your story touched my heart.

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