Nonfiction

More Than She Can Bear, acrylic by Phyllis Green

Little Girl at the Salad Bar

She’s about four, wearing a T-shirt that says, “California Knows How to Party” over a blue taffeta dress. She has a large matching bow in her hair, and she’s holding a white ceramic plate that is clearly way too heavy for her. It tips wildly, like a ring of Saturn gone rogue. If anything were on the plate, it would slide precipitously onto the linoleum floor. But the plate is empty and in immediate danger of a crash landing.

The little girl is standing next to the salad bar in a nondescript chain restaurant in the year 2017. I am seated nearby, watching her, although apparently nobody else is.

I am watching her, in part, because she is at around eye level to where I am seated, waiting for a friend to arrive, and there’s a keyhole-shaped space in the area around us that provides a window for me to look at her. That window, in which she is perfectly framed, is like a visual pause—a genuine caesura—in the general milling-about: customers sitting and rising, and the dumping of salad onto large, cold, oblong platters, in which she is perfectly framed.

But I am also looking at her because I love children, I love their smallness and the ways in which they are so new in the world, like fresh, empty hard drives, not much spam or clutter on them yet. And because she reminds me a bit of my own daughter—not the one I have, who is away at her first year of college, but the one I do not have because either:

a) someone bumped me hard on the subway in 1997;

b) I had a massage that went a little too deep and the masseuse, a burly Russian in the bowels of the Jewish Y on 14th Street in New York City, touched me in a sexual way that made me leap up from the table, jolting and crashing my giant belly against a chair, or

c) I was just too upset at that time in my life to have a baby, and the baby felt it and just decided not to come through on the deal.

In any event, I had a miscarriage in my third trimester, which happened in a New York City cab. I have worked hard to put this experience away somewhere, and I do not often think about this child anymore. She is the one I did not suckle, raise, or drive to summer camp in tears because she was afraid of mushroomsanddidnotwanttogo. She is not the one who briefly heard voices and saw ghostly people standing at the side of the road, waving at us one Thanksgiving. She is not the one who was beaten up by bullies in a park in a small town in upstate New York. She is the not the one who was drugged and raped by teenage boys in a distant town and failed to tell me about it for seven years. In short, she is not the one for whom I carry so much guilt and pain, and a deep sense of failure. She is like this child, standing alone in the files of bright possibility, potential, unspoiled. I have only the guilt around the end of her, before she ever began, and I have told myself it was a change of heart on her part. She simply had a sense that this life deal was not going to be that great. And ducked out.

The little girl at the salad bar is not an imaginary someone; she is right here. She did not change her mind about being born and backtrack; in fact, in some sort of earthy celebration of the pleasures of the human body, she is busily picking her nose, then unselfconsciously stuffing the contents into her mouth. And now she has thought of something else that is fun to do: twirling around and picking her nose simultaneously. It is a good trick. She twirls and picks, the large white plate dipping dangerously each time, threatening to fly away like a breakable Frisbee. Someone should be telling her not to do this. But nobody seems even to have registered her whereabouts. I am assuming these larger people of hers, the ones who might chastise her for her nose pickery/twirling activities are heartily stuffing food into their mouths at a nearby table; still at the salad bar, choosing which food they will soon stuff into their mouths; or in the bathroom. But it has been some time now, and no larger people have made anything even slightly resembling an appearance.

Looking at her there, in that exclamatory T-shirt with the unbuttoned dress beneath, I think about all my daughter’s outfits. The ones she wore as a baby, the little bear onesie, the red velveteen Chinese number. The little pea coat. How much I loved putting those on her. How much I loved then even the act of changing her diapers. I was a mother in love with mothering. Sometimes, I confess, I would go in her room as she slept and just look at her. She was a miracle, with eyelashes so long they looked fake—how could such eyelashes exist? The baby who had not been born, my other daughter, my anti-daughter, might have had such eyelashes as well. Why would anyone with the gift of such eyelashes decide not to be born? I asked myself that for a few years after her disappearance, then stopped, as it was making me sick.    

Raising daughter #2, the one who is now in college studying art, helped me put my disappeared daughter away, like the good china you will never use. Like the china I inherited from my mother and never once took out of the cabinet, #1 was too good to live….

The outfit on the little girl at the salad bar looks like hand-me-downs of hand-me-downs that someone shoved her into fast. They didn’t bother to tie the dress that is underneath her T-shirt; and the sash is dragging on one side, like a long blue tail, almost on the floor.  Her hair is unkempt, and I can see the beginnings of a giant rat’s nest in the back, like the kind my now-in-college daughter used to get.  I would attack them with detangling fluid, and she would weep with pain. “We could just go get you a nice haircut,” I would say, to which she would reply, “NO! NO! It’s pretty.”

People would often tell her how beautiful her hair was, and in fact how beautiful she was, which made me cringe a bit, as I could see she was getting the idea that what was good about her was her beauty. I knew about her other gifts, for example the way she adopted a small stub of carrot, named it, built a little house for it, and told me all about its favorite things: color, animal, foods. Tell me this isn’t more amazing than a tangle of long curly hair. I often thought people should be telling her, “You have the most beautiful imagination,” or “You are so smart, the way you’ve made a house out of toothbrushes that your little carrot stub Annabelle can live in!”

But beauty trumped cleverness, imagination, and all else; perhaps it was her extraordinary beauty that made those boys drug and rape her that weekend between sixth and seventh grade, when she was staying the night at her new friend’s house in another town. It had all seemed so great when I dropped her off: a mom in the kitchen doing dishes, littler kids watching Fairly Odd Tales in the living room, the friend greeting her with a hug that seemed adopted from the sort of hugs people give to relatives in airports. How could anything go wrong? And why had she never told me? Why did I have to find out from her friend, years later? It explained so much about her: the sudden shift from a joyful to a morose demeanor; that six-month “vow of silence” we blamed on the death of her cat.

The little girl at the salad bar is too short to see the contents, which are spotlighted in fluorescence like a complex science experiment. The Effect of an American Lunch Crowd on Miscellaneous Food Groups is on display. Brown tureens with various contents nestle and spill into a deep bed of rotund, machine-generated ice. Shredded cheese flops around maniacally. The little girl pulls herself up to her full height and pushes her nose up, which brings her about two inches from a cold metal bowl of radicchio and adjacent to a tureen of radishes. Nothing about her looks excited about these.

The room is full of elderly people who have filed into the restaurant from a tour bus. They amble and graze, some maneuvering walkers with bags and other sundry attachments. One bumps right into the little girl, apparently without noticing. Her plate falls and breaks into pieces. The girl looks up, as if to see who will come running, maybe give her a slap on the butt. But nobody appears; nobody even registers this. The world just keeps ambling, shoveling salad onto plates, applying dippers of ranch and blue cheese dressing, sprinkling on toppings of Chinese crunchy noodles and sunflower seeds. A busboy appears to pick up the pieces of plate; another person brings out a tray of ice cream sundae dishes filled with radioactive green Jello. People are piling their plates with macaroni salad, coleslaw, hardened fractals of beets balancing on top. Slices of hardboiled egg peer out like cartoonish eyes.

The little girl sees all of this from underneath, which is to say barely. Her eyes briefly ignite at the sight of the Jello, passing over her head like dishes of jewels. Then she sees something else. It is on the floor a few feet away from her. She walks toward it, leans over, and picks it up. It appears to be orange, like a tiny strip of sliced carrot. She presses it between her lips and continues walking, towards a giant fish tank set against a wall. She is chewing intently on the orange something-or-other as she stares at the school of neon tetras and a nondescript mollusk methodically making its way across the front of the glass.

Who is she? Who isn’t she? She is someone’s daughter, she is possibly someone’s sister, someone’s granddaughter perhaps. She is small and curious, and probably nothing terrible has happened to her yet; almost certainly nobody has drugged her and raped her. Probably nobody has done much at all, really, not even buttoned her skirt or tied her sash. At this very moment, she is a small girl, a fresh human soul, standing near a salad bar at around 12:45 p.m., somewhere in America. She is your child. She is mine. She is everyone’s. She is the child of all people on the edge of the many nowheres that are everywhere in America. It occurs to me that she could even be the girl I did not have, who has come briefly to earth simply to smile at me from the nowhere she has been all these years. In fact, at this very moment, she looks up through the keyhole of salad bar patrons that has her framed in front of me like a small painting, and she sees me seeing her. And she does it—she smiles. Then she runs toward a large someone who has appeared with a towering plate of food. He leans over, picks her up, and walks away. Over his shoulder, she is still looking at me. Our eyes momentarily lock. Hello, my love. Hello, my little maybe, my decided not to be born. She smiles, sideways, semi-waves, and then looks at something else that has caught her attention across the room.

Halfway through her first year at college, my daughter writes me a letter. In it she says she is happy, she likes college, and she says not to worry about all the “things that happened.” That is as deep as we go with all that.

I write her back and say I am so glad she likes college and feels happy, and that I am sorry. Truly sorry. I do not make excuses. I should have done better. Been more vigilant. More protective.

“It’s okay, mom, about all that,” she texts me the next day. “Don’t beat yourself up over it.”

Old Stranger: Poems
by Joan Larkin
Poem after poem, Old Stranger unearths moments that shape a woman's life. The poet's eye is unflinching as she sees the past folded into the present. Her body is the ground of deep soul hunger. Her language is music.
“To discover the ‘old stranger’ is a knife, not quite, it’s an old piano. No, it’s a book about mortality and the debt of flesh, about love, rot, relationship, smiles that cut like knives through every seeing moment. It’s about painting. It’s a beaut. There’s so much masterpiece here. I mean, wow, this is why one is a poet all their life. To make this.” — Eileen Myles, author of a "Working Life"   “Joan Larkin’s much-awaited Old Stranger: Poems is a miracle of compression, mystery, and innuendo. Here is a poet for whom craft is an extension of wisdom. Whether revealing the archetype secreted within an object, or the elemental, persistent grief within a memory, Larkin expertly hones the edges of poems like a luthier shapes a violin.” — Diane Seuss, author of Modern Poetry   "Engaging with curiosity and often startled affection, this poet tells of how it feels to be both enamored and shaken with what connections reveal. Quiet and absorbed, one reads this most graceful of books until pow and one is alerted!" — Jody Stewart, author of This Momentary World: Selected Poems
    More about Joan Larkin: www.alicejamesbooks.org/bookstore/old-stranger Available from Alice James Books, Bookshop, and Amazon.

Bios

Elizabeth Cohen is a retired professor of creative writing who holds an MFA from Columbia. Her work has been published widely in literary and mainstream publications. She is the author of The Family on Beartown Road (Random House); a book of short stories, The Hypothetical Girl; and a book of nonfiction essays, The Scalpel and the Silver Bear, among other publications.
Phyllis Green is an author, playwright, and artist. Her art can be found in ArLiJo 123, Gulf Stream magazine, Rip Rap, Rathalla, Talking River, Cinematic Codes Review, Superpresent, I70 Review, and other journals.

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