I pulled the covers in tight around me to shake the chill that slid up my spine. It did little good, but for my peace of mind. The storm raged outside as I watched the candle wick flicker in front of me. It was day 4 without sleep, but I knew as soon as my head hit the pillow it would come. I simply refused it. I did not want it to be real, and I knew that if I stayed awake, it wouldn’t be. It couldn’t.
I could still picture my father’s lifeless body tucked tightly into his bed. Since I was physically paralyzed at the sight of it, Cliff had to call the paramedics. He was pronounced dead at the scene, and probably had been for hours. So while Cliff and I wrestled in the dirty sheets of my single bed, my father lay having a heart attack. His toxicology report was clean, of course. Dad always was a straight arrow. Cheeseburgers and Budweiser were his killers.
I felt the pills Cliff gave me wearing off. My eyelids fluttered shut. I rushed to the bedroom window and shoved it open allowing a rush of cold air to flow in. My cousin’s ridiculous floral curtains fluttered in the wind, nearly smacking me in the face. She was away at college, all-girls of course, in Pennsylvania. I put my face to the screen and breathed in the country air. The air was so…..fresh. It was very different than the smoggy city smoke I was used to breathing in.
My Aunt Jesse had been exceedingly hospitable to me since I had arrived, but this place simply wasn’t home. I missed hearing the cabs rush past at 2AM, while Cliff slept off the six-pack he drank for dinner, and Dad’s television buzzed, singing me to sleep. The silence was too unbearable. I did not want to be alone with my thoughts. That was the most terrifying prospect I could imagine.
But it finally came. It was at once the biggest relief I had ever felt, and the harshest reality I ever encountered. As unbelievable as it may seem, it wasn’t until that moment that I realized I was not in control of my body. Regardless of whatever mental superiority I thought I possessed, my biological functions ultimately took over. My body needed sleep, and not even my strongest resistance, nor my drugs, could stop it. I fell into a state of psychedelic surrealism. I dreamed of my father with peacock feather sprouting from his head while he rolled a joint with Cliff. If only. Then my dream shifted, like a poor cut in the cinema, to my aunt swaddling me in some ridiculously large blanket and trying to bottle feed me vodka from a large nipple. I had had enough.
“Rose, Rose, wake up baby.” I stirred and turned over.
I felt a mouth touch my wet cheek ever so slightly. Had I been crying? Cliff was there. How the hell did he get here? Probably hitched a ride from Manhattan. No, definitely. He couldn’t afford bus fare, and my father was the only person willing to take him in. I guess we both lost something that day. I smiled, as best as I could, but I could already see the interest fading from his eyes. Cliff was certainly an interesting fellow, if nothing else.
I met him at some underground club in New York. I was still in Catholic school at the time, and wearing my uniform. Maybe he found that oddly attractive or kinky in some way? He approached me immediately and offered me “something to make me fly.” I was as naïve as a girl could be, and accepted willingly. I still don’t know exactly what I ingested that night, but I do remember Cliff deflowering me in the smoky bathroom amidst a crowd of kids hungry for a peek. He always said that something about me stuck.
I smiled, as best as I could. “Hi.” My voice sounded so foreign. I had not actually spoken in days. My throat was dry. I reached out for Cliff’s beer and he willingly handed it over. My aunt must have offered it to him out of hospitality, and of course, he accepted. I do not know if he is technically an alcoholic, but we’ve been fooling around for almost two years now, and not a day has gone by in which he hasn’t downed at least three beers before sundown. I’m sure my aunt was pacing the floor right beneath us. She was probably afraid that we would soil her daughter’s virginal bed sheets with the scent of lust. For once, I didn’t want to give in to lust.
“How are you holding up?” Cliff pushed my hair behind my ear. I forced a smile, “I’m ok, you know. It’s just….my Pops….I don’t know. I’m not sure he even knew me.” Cliff looked puzzled, “Rose, you were everything to him. The sun rose and set around you in his eyes. Christ, he hated me for so long because I took his little girl away. How could you even think something like that?” I blinked back the tears that welled in my eyes as Cliff talked.
“No, I know. That isn’t really what I meant, Cliff. He…I don’t know. He had this picture of me that wasn’t anything like what I really am. Cliff, I’m broken. I was broken, and he didn’t even know. He couldn’t see past the delusion he had of me. Now, he’s gone, and so is that delusion.” We were both quiet for a long time after that. Finally, I reached out to touch his hand. Cliff gripped my arm tightly and pulled me down into the bed. He started putting his hands all over me. He wandered around my body like a familiar map. Finally, his lips found mine. In an instant I was free from all of the painful emotion I had struggled so hard with over the past four days. If only I knew how easy it was to escape. Then, something strange happened. Cliff stopped. We were mid-foreplay and he stopped. I was shocked, “Are you okay?”
He looked torn. I could tell he really wanted me, deeply and passionately as he had had me so many times before, yet he stopped. He actually stopped. He bit his lip, sensuously, like he was testing me, too. “Rose…this. This isn’t right. You’re fucked up, I’m fucked up. Life’s fucked up. Let’s just get high and go to sleep. We can talk about this later.”
We took a few pills and drifted to sleep in my cousin’s single bed, entwined in each other’s limbs for the last time as lovers. In the morning we split for New York, despite my aunt’s attempts to keep me in her domestic cell. I yearned for the noise of the city to fill me in all of my empty spots. I don’t care what any scientist, philosopher, or crackpot realist says, New York City is alive.
My aunt lived on a semi-secluded dirt road in Northern New Jersey. Cliff and I must have walked six miles before a tractor trailer finally drove by. I hiked my shorts up and stuck my ass out into the road to get his attention. He stopped and hopped out of the truck, giving Cliff and I a once over. “Got junk?” He was dirty, filthy even. The sight of him almost made me throw up what little food I had in my stomach. Cliff put his arm around me and stepped between us, “Nah. We got some pills. Real good stuff, though. How far ya’ going?” He spit a giant phlegm ball onto the asphalt and coughed. “I gotta head all the way to Rhode Island, where y’all headed?” Cliff hesitated. I could tell he didn’t trust this man, but he was an experience hitcher. He could strike a good bargain. “Oh, well my wife here is with child, and we are trying to get home to her momma. She lives near the rest stop between New Jersey and New York. You can leave us there, if you’d be so kind.”
He gave Cliff a crooked look, “She must not be too far along yet. Y’all are too young for all that. Why’d y’all get married so dang young for? You must be a baby yourself.” Cliff stepped closer to the trucker and stuck out his chest, “Look here, don’t you worry ‘bout me, or her, or my baby. Can you take us or not?” He let out a sarcastic laugh, “Ha, I like your spunk, son. A few pills will do it. Y’all can ride in the back.”
So Cliff and I climbed in to the back of the semi and settled in for a metaphorically and physically bumpy ride. At first we laid down, cuddled together, but it felt different than it ever had before. The dynamic between us had changed. It felt like we were siblings rather than lovers. I straightened up and looked Cliff in the eyes. He turned away quickly and began biting his right thumb nail. I poked at his chest with my index finger, but he didn’t move. I lifted my shirt to expose my breasts to Cliff. That got his attention, as I knew it would, but again he turned quickly away. I knew then that I had lost him. I was no longer a sexual being to Cliff. I was real.
“Cliff, what’s wrong? Please, I just lost my father, I….I don’t want to lose you, too. Please.” He grabbed my face in his hands and look intensely at me, “Rose, I’ll never leave. I’ll always be here for you, honest, but this…it’s too heavy for me. I mean for fuck’s sake I don’t even know what I’m doing with an eighteen-year-old girl. Now I’m the only person in this world who knows you, Rose. I mean truly knows you. It’s a responsibility. You’re a responsibility now.”
In some weird way it felt right. I don’t know exactly how to explain it, but at that moment Cliff and I entered into some kind unwritten agreement in which he was my savior from everything. Just call me Freud’s wet dream. I mean don’t get me wrong, Cliff and I still had sex, but we were no longer lovers. We did it more out of habit or biological need than anything else really.
When the disgusting driver finally reached the rest stop, it was dark. Cliff and I decided to sleep outside, since it was such a beautiful night. During the early 1960s, the police never would have dreamed of stripping away your right to enjoy nature. Nowadays, you can’t even walk your dog after 10pm in most places. We slept on a grassy hill about a half a mile away from the rest stop. It was a perfectly clear night, and one that I remember fondly. Cliff and I were once again entwined in each other’s limbs, but this time it was quite different. He was protecting me from whatever the world might inflict on my already weakened psyche.
In the morning we popped a few more pills and headed back to the rest stop to hitch another ride home. This time it was much less risky. A woman and her two daughters were headed to Manhattan. She told us that if we could scrounge up a few dollars to feed her children then we could ride in the bed of her truck. We wasted no time dirtying ourselves up and begging for money. Cliff decided that the pregnancy story was actually a good bit. He lifted some tourist tee shirts from the rest stop convenience store and shoved them under my blouse. I leaned forward, accentuating my new found baby bump. Cliff concocted an entire sob story about how I got knocked up and our parents kicked us out, and now we’re left to fend for ourselves and just want enough money to get back to the city and go to the convent and adopt our baby out to some good Christian family. We were convincing enough to make enough dough for the woman to feed her kids and to buy ourselves a few sandwiches and cups of coffee.
When we finally got back to New York and to the tiny apartment I shared with my father, the mail box was clogged with bills. I guess Dad hasn’t paid them in a while. He worked hard, my Pops, he really did, but he couldn’t resist giving in to the bright colored advertisements and radio commercials that were all around him. We had the newest television set, but our rent was two months overdue. Cliff and I spoke to the landlord, who agreed to give us two more months to catch up. I didn’t think we would be able to do it. Cliff went to work at a grocery store near the apartment, while I tried to sell my poems to whomever I could find.
I started writing when I was still a child. I wrote one poem after my father died. It was the only one that ever made a cent for me. I called it Phoenix.
The sweat stained bedsheet
The tattered curtain
The dim light of the alarm clock radio
Gray skin, wide eyes.
The gold chain that hung around his neck illuminating.
I stand paralyzed.