Off the Map

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The heart of you makes the sound the vacuum cleaner does when it rolls over a crayon. And then you pour out of your mouth like dirty water, splash and hover just centimeters from the ceiling. You are a swarm of apertures. You are looking in every direction at once, infested with eyes.

You are vibrating with panic, reminded of that time your mother pulled the refrigerator out from the wall to sprinkle the thick green roach-bait powder behind it and thousands of the awful things came streaming out, spreading across the kitchen floor like a flashflood of black desire, purely profane. Your little sister had no hesitation, she ran forward with a warrior-whoop, in just her terry-cloth trainer undies and her cowgirl boots, and began stomping wildly. You stood paralyzed.

You didn’t refill the ice cube trays. All three of them are leaning diagonally, in blue plastic repose, in the dish drainer on the left side of the sink downstairs. Your husband Dan complains about that all the time. He’ll talk about it you think, in the future, after he discovers your body in its rigorously mortal state, when all the sad-eyed casserole-bearers come parading through, offering condolences with their Frito pies and tuna fish mac-n-cheeses. He’ll say I found all the ice cube trays empty, goddammit, I always hated that and then he’ll sputter like a car with a failing fuel pump.

You look down at him lying there in bed, shirtless in the heat, flat on his back, his chest rising and falling rhythmically. He’s snoring, as usual. It’s a wonder you could manage dying with all the racket. You think it might be satisfying to see him naked one last time. You will yourself closer, fanning out over his warm skin, but just as you reach out to pull at the elastic waistband of his pajama pants, you realize you have no hands, no arms.

And you are launched as if from a slingshot, backwards, out of the house through the open window, flying involuntarily, rocketed into the firmament, revolving around the earth at unbelievable speed. Starry smears blur by as you hurtle through the universe. You make a complete circuit, slam back into your body and lurch upright, your lungs heaving. You look around you in the dark, your movements jerky like a lizard or a small rodential animal. You scream.

Dan startles awake What? What? What the fuck?

I… I forgot to fill the ice cube trays.

Fuuuuck he groans Seriously? And he turns over, falls back asleep facing the wall.

***                      

In the morning, walking your son Charlie to school, you have to be deliberate about putting one foot in front of the other. It takes some concentration. It took you a ridiculously long time to make a sandwich to nestle into his TARDIS lunchbox. And when it was finally done, you remembered that peanut butter is an outlaw in elementary school, and had to start all over with bologna and lettuce leaves.

That was pretty dumb of you Charlie said, kicking the trash can with his new sneakers, Peanuts are a good way to kill somebody, though.

He’s running ahead now, under a milky sky. There’s thunder. He turns, smiling, the little pink tip of his tongue like an earthworm poking through the double-gap where his front teeth used to be.

Dragons! he calls back to you, winky-eyed. They’re going to eat you all up!

He squeals with glee.

Mangle mangle mangle he drones.

When Charlie was littler, you told him that thunder and lightning were dragons. You told him that’s why he had to take cover in a storm.

You would be so tasty! A big fat tasty Mama! Crispy!

You look up, not sure what to expect. There could be dragons up there after all.

You deposit him safely at school, and as you walk back toward home, the rain comes down in sheets. You’re soaked. You should have brought that thing. That thing, but you can’t remember what it’s called.

 ***

You sit at your kitchen table, your hand clutching a chipped mug of peppermint tea. You have to get your bearings. You have to get a hold on yourself. You haven’t yet filled the ice cube trays, but you can’t bring yourself to do it.

You had a discussion with Charlie just yesterday about how it isn’t appropriate to make fun of people who are sick. There’d been a television program that upset you, his laughter burrowing under your skin like a shovel-faced insect.

Knock knock he’d said.

Who’s there? you’d asked.

Leprosy. He’d paused, his grin slimy. You mean like that?

You almost wish he were here now, across the table from you, you’d even ask him Leprosy who? You don’t want to be alone in the house, you could die today alone in the house. You could die today, again.

You call Dan at work, tell him, whispery into the receiver I died last night.

Seriously? You called me at work for this? I’m busy. Do you need some attention?

People say that like it’s something outrageous. Doing it for attention. Like attention is something unnecessary, as if it is a vulgarity.

You may have died just for attention.

***

Umbrella. Yes, that’s it. Umbrella. You take your umbrella and go next door, to Sarah’s house. Sarah is a woman, a woman in all the ways you are not. She smells like baby powder, vanilla. She never cuts her own bangs. She carries an endless variety of purses instead of a tote bag. You’ve always had the suspicion that Sarah would love to tell you just what is wrong with you.

You sit at her kitchen table, a Bloody Mary centered prettily on the daisy-print placemat in front of you. You crunch into the celery stick and droplets of tomato juice speckle the front of your cheap rayon blouse. Sarah hands you a paper napkin, smiles with a little flush of embarrassment for you.

I’m just feeling today like I don’t know who I am you say, watching her spread her fingers delicately across the placemat in front of her. She examines her manicure instead of looking at you. Could you please describe me? I mean, what I’m like, what I’ve been like before today?

Her eyebrows lift. She sighs. Oh, sweetie.

No, really you say Go ahead.

Well, look she says making eye contact with an earnest pinch of her lips, If you really want to be a better you, there’s no better time than right now…

You nod, solemnly.

You remember when Maddy and Austin were taking care of that frog for their biology unit? They named it after you, sweetie.

So… I’m like… a frog?

Well, I mean, there’s nothing so wrong exactly about reptiles, sweetie, the Lord made them, but-

Amphibians.

What? she asks.

A frog is an amphibian.

Yes, well, you wear sweatpants to the grocery store.

Sarah tilts her head to the side, fondles a ringlet of her smooth and shiny hair as you take a gulp of your Bloody Mary. You wipe your upper lip with the crumpled paper napkin. You are an amphibian, in a sweatpantsy way.

Did you want to go ahead and put in a Tupperware order this time around? she asks brightly.

***

You decide that your project for the day will be to bring down all the boxes of clothes from the attic, reorganize them. Off-season clothes, outgrown clothes; you’re sure much of it could be donated to the thrift store. It seems like a nice long project to fill up the afternoon. Repetitive folding is always soothing to you.

You carry each box down the narrow attic stairs, stack them like oversized kids’ blocks throughout the living room. A castle in progress, waiting for a giant hand to wreck it. You’re sure Charlie would be up for it, if he found a way to swell to monstrous proportions. He’d probably wreck you, too. Crush you under massive sticky thumbs.

There are Spider-Man pajamas in every size, from infant to big boy. Little overalls, little sweaters, little hats and socks and shoes. Dinosaur t-shirts, robot t-shirts, rocketship t-shirts. Hallowe’en costumes. Husband’s winter coat, long johns, flannel shirts, that furry hat. Your thick wool poncho, a dozen different scarves in all sizes from the time you took up knitting. Nobody liked the scarves, nobody wore them.

The Hallowe’en costumes. Yes, there it is. The big rubber dragon mask you wore three years ago. Green and purple painted scales, yellow-rimmed eyeholes, a long snout, curling crimson flames shooting from its toothy jaws. It slides over your head easily, smells good inside, in a weird way. Band-Aidy. You sit Indian-style in the middle of your living room rug, unfolding and refolding all the clothes, with a big rubber dragon mask on your head.

The heart of you is not a frog. It is a dragon.

You say it out loud The heart of me is not a frog. It is a dragon.

You say it three times.

You stop with the unfolding and refolding, and you sit up straighter, nostrils flaring beneath the mask, as if you smell something in the air.

You walk into the kitchen, with your dragon head on, and carefully fill each little cube-shaped cavity in the blue plastic trays. You place each of the three trays into the freezer compartment, and shut the refrigerator door gently and slowly, as if you tucked them in to bed and don’t want them to wake when you sneak out of the room.

You go upstairs and you change out of your jeans and into your favorite sweatpants. They are maroon and wide-legged, without elastic on the ankles. You smash your son’s piggy bank on the bathroom tiles and pocket all of his birthday cash. Then you start moving the clothes in great armfuls out onto the front lawn. You get the gas can from the garage, and the wooden matches.

***

The heart of you makes the sound the vacuum cleaner does when it rolls over a crayon. But you keep driving. You fled the scene of the crime. You think maybe it shouldn’t be a crime, burning your own clothes, at your own house, in your own front yard, with your own gasoline, while wearing your own big rubber dragon mask. But here you are, a middle-aged dragon-headed mother in maroon sweatpants and a tomato-juice splattered rayon blouse, swerving and gunning the engine of your blue 2006 Honda Odyssey minivan full of petrified french fries, taco fossils.

The streets are slick from the thunderstorm. The rain has exhausted itself and lies indolent in puddles. It’s probably complaining, asking for a blanket or a sandwich, but you speed by, extend one middle finger, nail bitten to the quick, toward it again and again as it reflects the turnip-colored sky.

Sarah stood watching from her bay windows, her lipsticked mouth forming a perfect zero of shock. Mrs. Kim from across the street bobbed up and down on her lawn, shouting in Korean. You’d like to think she was cheering you on, but it’s not likely.    Surely, they called the police. Surely, there are surly nurses with straitjackets prepared for your arrival someplace with pale green walls, someplace where they’ll want you to watch game shows and ask to use the bathroom. Someplace where your job will be to just take it easy, and to lift your tongue to show you aren’t a resister.

There’s got to be somewhere you can hide out.

You ditch the minivan in a strip mall parking lot, and set off on foot. You’re glad you always wear comfortable shoes. Sarah would be screwed.

***

The roller rink. The giant neon four-wheeled boot blinks beaconly in the murk of the overcast afternoon air. You spent hours here after school, nearly every day in junior high, circling and circling under the disco ball. In the evenings, you’d tie your skates together by the laces and sling them over your shoulder to wait for your dad to come pick you up in the wood-paneled station wagon. Some nights you’d wait so long that you’d finish your choose-your-own-adventure book twice, three times, by the light of the huge neon skate, and still be waiting. Your ass would go numb sitting on the concrete before he got there, smelling beery-sour, dots of white froth studding the corners of his mouth. He never wore a seatbelt and he’d get angry about you using yours. What, you think I’m too drunk to drive?

There are no other skaters in the place now. The kid behind the skate-rental desk has a soul-patch and bloodshot eyes, and his name tag says Pete.

What’s with the mask? Pete asks with a suspicious squint. I don’t think that’s allowed in here.

Because what, you’re a fucking bank? you reply. You notice it’s easier to be mouthy when you are hidden under a big rubber dragon head. Also, when you have burned lots of things in your yard and are on the run from the law.

Look, lady, I don’t want any trouble.

No you say You wouldn’t, would you, Pete? You probably don’t want to have to call the cops, or your manager, since you reek of weed. How’s about we let the nice crazy lady in the dragon head skate for a while, okay? And while you’re feeling friendly, you could turn off this crap and play some Bee Gees. I wanna hear some falsetto.

You realize this is the most you’ve spoken out loud all day. You hope he caught everything, because the mask probably muffles the sound of your voice.

Pete stares at you for a second, weighing his options.

Do you have a gun?

What, in my sweatpants? No. No, I do not have a gun. I probably should have taken the gun, but I’m not a bad person, so I don’t have the gun.

Pete stares again, mouth-breathing, then shrugs his shoulders.

I know how to work the deep-fryer. You want to eat some free jalapeño poppers with me?

Yeah, Pete. That’d be real nice.

***

You skate in circles, your arms thrown wide. You skate backwards, remembering your zoom around the galaxy. You spin, you dip down and glide in a crouch, you roll on and on and on. You skate to every Bee Gees tune on the playlist, and then you skate to Journey, Blue Öyster Cult, The Ramones, The Pretenders. You skate until you are breathless and then you skate some more.

Pete has locked the doors. He hung a sign, a pink sheet of paper laminated and attached by little hooks to suction cups that kiss fast to the glass. It says in 48-point Comic Sans MS:

“Private Party”!!!!

You take a break to smoke a fat doobie and gorge yourself on jalapeño poppers and fountain Cokes bigger than your head. It necessitates taking off your big rubber dragon head. Pete nods when he sees your face for the first time, as if it is what he was expecting.

You’re totally not deformed or anything. I knew it.

You tell Pete your story, from the swarm of eyes and the ice cube trays right up to the sanctuary promised by the colossal neon roller skate beckoning to you in the grayish gloom.

Wow he says, you’ve really lost your shit. And that part about the ice cube trays is really kind of weird, don’tcha think? What do you think that’s all about?

Yeah you agree It’s pretty wild. I haven’t thought too much about the ice.

You want to turn on the TV and see if you’re on the news? he asks.

Nah. I just want to skate some more, if I’m choosing my own adventure.

It’s pretty fucking cool that I get to be in your story says Pete.

Yeah, you’re an unlikely hero.

Do you think you should give me a blowjob or something?

No, Pete. No, I do not.

Well, you’re pretty hot for an older chick, anyway he mumbles.

Thanks, Pete you say, patting him on the shoulder That means a lot to me. I hope if I die again at the end I don’t do it here and get you in trouble.

Oh, shit says Pete I didn’t think about that.

You roll out onto the smooth, waxed wood of the rink and pick up speed, pulling your mask back on. You hitch up your sagging sweatpants, and throw back your dragon head, bellowing at the top of your lungs Play “Godzilla” again!

And Pete does.

***

It’s just shy of midnight when you and Pete leave the roller rink in his 1998 Plymouth Neon Expresso. The dragon head rests on your lap, it’s yellow-ringed eyes gazing up at you emptily.

You like the spoiler on the back? he asks I thought it was pretty sweet. It has a dual overhead cam. Do you know what that means?

You do not. You shake your head.

150 horsepower. Fuck yeah he says The passenger door panel was missing when I bought it, but I thought Shit, weight-savings, man. I could race this fucker, you know.

He drives you past the parking lot where you abandoned the Odyssey, but it’s gone. He drives you past your house, not too slow, and you see there’s police tape cordoning off the lawn, and the lights are on in every room. You catch a glimpse of Dan, standing in the living room with empty cardboard boxes piled precariously on the couch behind him. He holds a can of cheap beer in one hand, and the cordless phone in the other, pressed to his ear. You almost feel bad for him. He’s still wearing his work suit, his tie loosened but hanging in a limp loop around his neck. You know just how his neck smells. You wonder how Charlie got home from school.

Where to now? Pete asks as he eases to a stop at the sign at the end of your block.

You hold the dragon head in both hands and cradle it to your breast like you once held Charlie, when he was a honey of a baby in soft Spider-Man jammies, before he was a little shit. Before he had peanut-homicide fantasies.

I’m going off the map you murmur.

***

Some of it, you write with words. Some of it is just pictures, stick figure hieroglyphs, loops and swirls that would be unintelligible to anybody but you. Crooked lines, circles, vaguely Cyrillic scribbles of backward block letters. Some of it is more about the dance you do to write it, the dance of you bending and turning and lunging more than the product of your motions. You drag your driftwood stick across the sand, carving your story out of the damp soft beach. This is the beach where you used to run with your sister, seagull feathers daggered into your twisted salty locks, pretending to be Native princesses. This is the beach where you used to almost-skinny-dip with your high school boyfriend, taking off your underwear, but always keeping your bra on, holding the bottomless two-liter bottle in one hand, a plastic lighter in the other, using the ocean as your own personal gravity bong.

You dig out your story from the very beginning, stretching it down the shore, starting with the very first memory, that afternoon in your cousin’s backyard, toddling so fast that your feet left the grass and you flew over the buttercups laughing, your whole body thrumming with joy. You looked back to call to your cousin to join you, but he was gone, your mothers were gone, you were alone and you sank out of the air like a sudden stone, pressed your forehead to the earth and cried. You start from there.

It comes up and out from the heart of you, those first primal swells of ecstasy and anguish expanding to include everything, every moment, every dream. Every kiss, every fist. Every swallow, every breath. Every itch. Every star and eyelash wished upon. Every song sung, every tooth lost and gained, every fear that lurked with dark tendrils whispering, every prayer spun from ache-drunk bruise-blue threads. Every hungry grasp at love, every iron cruelty pressed into the flesh of others.

Every equation solved, every best bloody mouthful.

You write it, draw it, dance it all, an immense and exhaustive map of you, and at the end it is punctuated with one big rubber dragon head laid gently on the sand, blank eyes turned to the burning ball of the rising sun as it bleaches the stars from the sky. The tide is coming in, washing it all away, and you feel your face changing. Your jaw elongating, opening wide and wider. You feel your shoulder blades spreading, wings burgeoning. Your sweatpants are rent to pieces, your stained blouse is wreckage. You are spangled with scales of gleaming purples, iridescent greens. You thunder.

 

Photo By: westpark

 

 

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About Author

Anna Lea Jancewicz lives in Norfolk, Virginia, where she homeschools her children and haunts the public libraries. She is an Associate Editor at Night Train, and her writing has appeared or is forthcoming at The Citron Review, Hobart, matchbook, Prime Number, WhiskeyPaper, and many other venues. Yes, you CAN say Jancewicz: Yahnt-SEV-ich.

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