by J. Dunn Stewart
You were born. Anyone might begin this way.And in this born there may have been close, wet channels, blood and mucus, the promise of light, space, fresh air, some urgency, fear, even, that special, high throttle excitement that dovetails with things unknown, things outgrown, risk. Likely, there was pain. Cries out, vaginal tearing, the pronged embrace of forceps, foreign hands, things that are blue, cords connecting you that you may have preferred, in retrospect, remain bound.
Before this, actually, you might begin.
This would involve egg, sperm, tubes, sacs, hormones, a woman, perhaps, performing a helpful handstand against a wall, a death-defying journey against gravity, a precarious, tissue bound union, a less than peanut-sized thing that is you, a careful, drug-free diet, a woman who walks about with her hand constantly supporting her belly though swelling has yet to occur. This is what you hope for.
You were born. This thing you know, above all other things, for certain.
But others must recall it for you:
You peed on the doctors!
You were so perfect, not a trace of that misshapen infant head!
You slid right out as if nothing!
You were so blue we thought you would never cry out!
So it could be that you would begin elsewhere. Something more tangible to you: a first memory, perhaps.
Those inflatable floaties that band to your arms are removed for the first time and the swimming instructor (you thought you'd never, ever seen something so beautiful) says just start by swimming to me, but he's taking steps backward in the pool as you advance toward him so that the two of you will never meet. There's that first knowledge of being able to keep your head above water, that panicky feeling of strain in your lungs, the muted sound like your father's electric razor behind the closed bathroom door the pool water makes when your ears go under. Late day sun falls in long, rugby stripe shadows on the blue white blue of the neighborhood pool, the tops of your ears get sun burnt because your mother forgets to put sunscreen on them, and she, fabulous and Jackie O sunglassed, sips an iced tea with a lemon wedge, a Polaroid balanced on her knee, watching you with that insides smiling outsides not way that she has from the shade of a nearby sun umbrella.
But it could be that you would begin later, still: menstruation, masturbation, a first kiss. These things signaling autonomy, the absence of instructors, mothers, photographs. Here there might be a cacophony of emotion, feelings so helplessly entwined that one cannot be distinguished from another: embarrassment, disgust, wonderment, self loathing, curiosity, scorn, melancholy, rebellion, timidity. This beginning might feature sweaty palms, blood that's not cut-red but brown, the taste of someone else's spit on your first drag of cigarette, that special way you position yourself on your bicycle seat or in front of the swimming pool jets to get that feeling, sex that doesn't hurt like you'd imagined but, worse, feels like nothing at all.
Depending on the story at hand, you might say, throwing up your hands, I could begin anywhere. Beginnings just being things pulled from an enormity of chaotic space, yous in a constant state of splinter.
Death, even, a beginning, depending.
Certainly, though, there was pain. Pain like fucking too hard or looking too directly at the sun or stumbling across a photo of someone loved long dead or running until you feel like you might throw up or continuing to do something you know is terrible for you or feeling that what is this world I have been born into feeling or being left behind or lost or wanting to be left behind, lost, confident that you'll never, no matter how hard you swim, ever arrive in the tanned, cut, glistening chlorine wet embrace of the swimming instructor who urges you on.
2. Scene with Paper Dolls
It could be that he is your grandfather, or your great grandfather, or an older uncle or second cousin of your mother's, or perhaps even an elderly friend of hers, as close to you as anyone, who sits on the stair while everyone else is chatting in the kitchen before the meal. The stair may be around the corner from the kitchen, leading upward as stairs tend to do, so that he is able to sit there undetected but still hear the conversation occurring in the kitchen as clearly as if he were standing among them in the kitchen himself. Or it could be that the stair is a ways down the hall, past the half-bath and nearer to the front door. Or perhaps it's located at the rear of the house, tucked away like one of those servant's stairs that fashion the settings of novels by people like D.H. Lawrence or E.M. Forster, drafty and lacking in proper lighting, a place where lurking inevitably occurs. But in any case he can hear for sure the bursts of laughter that echo and weave throughout the house, laughter that spills from the mouths of those you assume he loves best or, at least, those he knows most intimately, so that he is able to identify which laugh belongs to whom and is able, as well, to know with more than a fair amount of precision the way said person looks while laughing (head thrown back, hand covering mouth, belly shaking, etc). He has a drink in his hand which he sips at intervals, a Johnny Walker on the rocks or a gin and tonic without the twist, nothing fussy, and it is not his first but certainly his second, perhaps even his third.
You are only a child, older than five but younger than ten; old enough to make inferences, too young to extract meaning from them. It could be that you are looking for him, having noted his absence in the kitchen, or it could be that you merely happen across him while looking for a cousin or a sibling or your cat or a misplaced toy. There he is though, sitting on the stair, and it surprises you to see him like that, just there on the stair with his knees tucked up so that you can see his bare shins sticking up above the tops of his grown-up man socks, blue-white and papery, like the skin that forms on warmed milk when you leave it out too long. His elbows rest on his knees and the sleeves of his cardigan are pushed up, and he cradles the rocks glass in both gnarled hands, and he swirls it around in tiny circles so that the ice chinks. Sitting this way on the stair simultaneously accentuates in him both the old man that is and the young man that was, as if the young man is folded up in there (the pushed up sleeves, the casual leaning with one shoulder along the wall, the hiked up knees, the furtiveness, as if a teenager sneaking a cigarette, but one that does not particularly care if he gets caught) inside the old one (the weird skin on his shins, the liver spots on the back of his hands, the peeling, bald scalp, the hanging of his head, as if dreadfully heavy) like those paper cut-out dolls that look like one figure, but are really many figures connected by the hands when pulled apart.
He seems neither pleased nor irritated that you have discovered him on the stair. Perhaps, if you were not a child, he would be sheepish or defensive or apologetic, but you are a child, maybe his favorite maybe not, thus he trusts that he can fool you into believing that it is not peculiar that he has fled the gathering to sit alone on the stair and drink and listen to the laughter that echoes and weaves throughout the house. You say something to him in that abrupt and random way children sometimes do, something produced wholly from whatever internal world you are currently absorbed in, as if no other world could possibly exist (Look at my new shoes! or Watch! I can do the moonwalk!) and you may even do a few steps of the moonwalk to prove it, or jump up and down to demonstrate the bounciness of your new shoes. Perhaps he offers some brief response, something about your shoes (They certainly are bouncy!) or something about you more generally (You're silly!) or something broader about the evening (Are you having fun tonight?) perhaps he does not. Either way what follows is a long silence, an eternity of silence in child time that is in reality probably less than a minute, within which he lifts his head up mightily like an ancient hound to look at you more fully, his eyes huge and oblong among all those droopy, gravity-ridden wrinkles, the pink pockets of his lower lids filled with that pooled water that often frequents the eyes of the old.
This moment suspends, like that period between dropping the glass and watching it break, when the glass, not yet shattered but doomed nonetheless, seems to tumble end over end forever before it hits the floor. You suffer your way through it because you somehow possess that inherent knowledge that you should, that it would be a nice thing to do to allow him to look at you this way, as if memorizing something, like multiplication tables, for awhile. But both squeamish and increasingly desperate to truncate the length of the silence and the intensity of his gaze, you say something awkwardly sweet or maybe even a little funny, perhaps a joke you overheard in the kitchen that you don't understand. Likely he offers you a reluctant, tired smile, a smile you know is a smile not because you can see his lips do so but because his wrinkles, incredibly, multiply in the deep crevasses of skin about his mouth and, in doing so, the pooled water spills over and begins its zigzag course across the map that is his face.
It may be that you frame it as a question (Are you crying? or Why are you crying?) or it may be that you simply make a statement (Hey, You're crying!) Either way his reply is one that is neither an affirmation or a denial, something like, I'm old, my eyes often water. He takes a long sip from the glass that is held with both gnarled hands, draining it, then widens his mouth to allow the ice to fall in there too, crunching it between his teeth. You're temped to say something about how he shouldn't do that, your mom says so, it's bad for your. . .what's that word? E-narm-al, but you don't, your curiosity about the watery eyes trumping the rule about not chewing ice. Instead, because you are a child and it is a child's most favorite thing to ask, you say something along the lines of, Why? or How come? in that utterly ambiguous way so that it is impossible to know precisely to what it is that you refer. It could be that you mean, Why do old people's eyes water? Or that you mean, more broadly, Why is it that you are you old?
I'm old, he repeats, then thinks longer on it and adds the equally ambiguous statement, I don't know why.
Maybe because you've seen it done on television, or because it's something that your mother does when you are sad, or perhaps you just know to do it, the same way a cat knows to lick the mucus from the eyes of her newborns or bird knows to regurgitate to feed her chicks, you perform some exquisitely tender gesture for the first time. And you're terrified as you do it because you're not at all sure if you'll do it right, and also because you're uncertain of the reality that will be the papery milkskin feel of him beneath the touch of your hand. But the grown-up in you is folded up inside this terror, euphorically and boldly adult, and the gesture has the same effect as the pulling apart of the paper dolls, what was one dimensional is now two, the first of a dozen little yous suddenly visible, connected at the hands.
J. Dunn Stewart received her MFA from Brown University. Originally from Washington D.C., she currently resides in Southern California. This is her first published story.