Hunger

by janeeatonhamilton

Hunger

I’ve done something wrong, I think, except I am still in bed.  I scramble up to peer out the window and there she is, in her truck, smashed against the rear of my green car.  There doesn’t seem to be any damage.  From my vantage point high above the street, things look fine.  Still, I heard glass break.  I open the window, but I catch my fingers so that the window rolls up and over them and the pain is enormous.  She drives her truck down Pender and is gone who knows where.  There are things between this woman and me and every time she leaves, those things stretch and stretch.  Or they feel like smashed fingers, how the pain swells up and is bigger than a basketball or maybe this house, just for a minute, that big and encompassing.  But there is no one to cry out to so I don’t make a sound.
In an hour, she hasn’t come back.  She hasn’t phoned either.  I wonder whether she is going to tell me or whether the first I am to know of it is when the police stop me.  I can imagine that clear as day.  -Miss, a cop would say, do you realize you have no brake lights?  I’d hold up my fingers to see if the bruises would impress him, how the nails are swollen and purple.  Officer, I hurt myself, I’d say but I’d get the ticket anyway, I’d have to come home to her, waving it and shaking my head.  I’d say, Seventy-five bucks.  That’s what I’d say.  I’d look from the ticket to her and tell her how much.  And then I’d be as good as dead.  Around and around, that woman doing circles in my brain, attached in my brain like some elastic she keeps snapping back on me.

One day when she came home and I wasn’t expecting her, I hid behind the couch.  This was in January, when the days are short and cold.  Because she was trying to conserve electricity, the house was hardly heated; she didn’t care, it wasn’t her who was home all day.
-Stupid Bettina, she called, come out, come out.  Oh little thick-as-a-brick, where have you gotten to?  Where is my supper?
Peeking out as much as I dared, I saw she was in different clothes than she’d left in that morning.  But she was early.  It wasn’t dinnertime.  It was two hours away from dinnertime.
-Here I am! I cried.  Catch me if you can!  I leaped out and began to run around the living room, up over the couch and coffee tables, into the kitchen and bathroom, then outside even though I was wearing threadbare slippers and there was ice and snow on the steps.
When she caught me, she kissed me.  I was right beside a rhododendron bush in the side yard and for a minute it could have been May because I felt like a bloom, hot pink and florid.  She kissed me until my lips were broken.  I was so grateful.  She lifted me light as a memory and carried me back inside the house.  -How fast can you cook? she asked me, setting me down beside the stove.  Make Spanish omelettes.

I walk out onto our porch, which is now a summer porch, and I look at all our potted flowers.  My car is still out there, smashed, but I don’t care.  She has blue Andirondack chairs and I sit down.  Last summer someone stole one, one chair and two footstools and a beach blanket, but the next night she woke me up at three to say the thief had brought them back.  There was a note: I’m sorry I stole your stuff.  She’d believed I’d hidden things so she could paddle me.  -Bettina, she’d said, you dickens, you bad girl.  Come over here now.  Then when the thief returned them, everything was ruined.  One slap at a time, she took my spanking back.  This year, though, it’s the flowers.  One too many compliments from strangers passing by, is how I see it, because every day there is one geranium gone, one mallow, one lupin, and one expensive clay pot.  I am the one who grows things.  It is something I do for her.  There are no new plants missing.  I look around.  She isn’t motoring up the street.  I take a plant, a big hanging basket full with seedy fuchsia bells, and carry it around the side of the house and under the other porch where she has old, big furniture stored.  I hide it inside a cabinet.

Once, early on between us, she sat between my legs, smoking a cigarette.  She was wrapped in a white towel fresh from the laundry.  Her friend, the friend she’d brought home for me, was lying on my left, but my eyes didn’t leave her eyes where all the instructions for my life were written.
-Kiss each other, she said behind her fog of smoke.  Thick stick, soupbone, darling, kiss Kirsten while I watch.
Kirsten was a girl like I was a girl.  I kissed her but I was shy and slow, I barely brushed her lips with my lips, the merest hint of kisses, kisses that were hardly kisses, insubordinate kisses, really, because it was not what my lover wanted from me.  Kirsten was too stoned to know.  Kirsten was a girl who would do anything.  Kirsten’s lips opened and closed while I thought of my lover above us and how I lived in her blue, east end house and how every night she opened my thighs and whispered love into the girl parts of me, words that etched on my tender pink skin so I was scarred, was branded, was tattooed.
-I will never leave you, I told her.  Mommy, I said, I will never go.
She moved her fingers hard into me.
-Never! I cried.

She believes it is necessary for me to have a car.  It is a car like a preacher would drive, a family car that is boxy and big.  I use it to move out onto the streets while she is not at home, to move past the neon signs and over the viaduct.  She wants me to stay in Strathcona and Chinatown; she wants me to park in front of downtown churches, seek salvation-to-go, and while God is watching, finger myself.  But I cruise further to where men wear suits and soft leather shoes, where women and girls move smooth in heels, briefcases banging at their nylons.  I tell her I like the efficiency, when she asks, that I like the idea of becoming an international financier.  I cruise to UBC and SFU and bring home undergraduate application forms which I spread under her hands for her touch.

-My adorable moron, she says.  Do you love me, do you love me more than life itself?
-Yes, I whisper, oh yes oh forever.
-Don’t go to school, she says.
-Mommy, I won’t, I say.  I smell her lips, the yellow toxins of her cigarettes, and move underneath her, promising everything.
-Sweetheart, she says.  Darling girl.  I will take care of you always.
-Always, I breathe.

A few weeks ago, there was a knock on the door.  When I answered it I found a girl who told me her name was Sue; she’d just moved in next door.  The house next door is pink but otherwise exactly the same as this one.
-Well, she said and smiled over straight teeth, I just wanted to say hello.  To be neighbourly and all.
-Hello, I managed finally.
-Five of us just moved in, she said.  We’re film students.  Cinematographers.
-Students? I said, perking up.
-At BCIT.
The British Columbia Institute of Technology: I’ve driven past it many times.
-Three guys and two of us women, she said.
-Students? I repeated.
-Sure, she said.  I just came over to say hi.
-Hi, I said.  And then I grinned wide and said, Hi, Sue.

Sometimes I believe she’s a mirage and I am grown, and I have a husband and son.  Sometimes I understand she is not my mother and that I have a mother tucked in a dark corner of my brain, a mother who hums as she does dishes, who misses me and jolts alert each time the telephone rings.  This mother is everything a mother should be and she has hopes for me, hopes as real and true as a vacuum cleaner, hopes as simple as wanting to know I’m alive.  She is in Winnipeg, this mother, waiting.  I do not make my lover wait.  I torture her with my plans to take a business degree at the university, but I never make her wait.  She says she’s been waiting all her life for me and now her wait is over.
-Buttercup, she says, holding me like an infant in her arms, rocking me.
I nuzzle close and lose my education.  She pulls my education out of me strand by strand until I am a younger girl, a much younger, stupider girl.

-My little snail, she says, bending over me.  Tell me what you want.  Tell me what to do.  Is it that you want a man?  Am I not enough?
-I want to go back to school, I tell her.
Her hand is between my thighs.  -Turn over on your stomach.
-No! I cry, clamping my legs closed.
She pulls free, falls away and lies on her back.  She averts her eyes.
-I won’t leave you, I say, relenting.
-School is for smart girls, Bettina, she tells me.
-I won’t leave you, I repeat.
-I know about school, she says.  School would only fill your brain with thoughts of dead poets.  With numbers.  With geography.  School can’t give you a thing.
She is right.  I have everything here, with her.  There is nothing I need.  School could not give me what she’s given me, what she gives me effortlessly, what she’s filled me with.

But at Simon Fraser University I walk the halls carrying books from her shelves.  The university walls are plain and there is a faint smell, a mixture of sweat and fear students have left behind.  This is what I want, what she doesn’t understand.  When clusters of students pass me, I pretend to be looking at the walls, at display cases, but really I am watching them.  When they vanish, I scurry towards the bookstore.  If it’s closed I press my face against the glass to see the books perfectly aligned on their shelves; sometimes I kiss the glass to make a grey imprint of my lips.

She owns this house.  She tells me she has always owned it but I know there was a time when she could not have, a time before she was a woman.  I also know she has lived here for twenty years or more, since before I was born, and that other girls have lived here with her.  I make them up.  I give them names like Pepper and Godiva and stand them, chewing their fingernails, in front of the dishwasher.  Once I tried to find a spare key to my lover’s office, a place off-bounds to me, so I could understand these girls and how they came here and how they left.  I imagined photograph albums and diaries.  I thought of mementos.  I turned the house upside down and still, there was no key.  But I could not stop imagining my lover bending over these girls, these Pennys and Dots.  I saw her face, intent, its crows lines and full mouth.  She is mysteriously wealthy, my lover, yet she lives here, on this bad street, with girls.

One night Sue and the other film students set up their equipment in front of this house.  While my lover watched TV, I stood at the window barely cracking the drapes.  There were vans from which were hauled huge cameras and studio lights; there were many people, much urgent milling about.  Finally Sue stood with a blackboard of sorts, clacking it.  A girl rushed up the sidewalk, conferred quickly with another, lit a cigarette and rushed away.  I couldn’t hear the dialogue, not from indoors, but over and over the scene, which looked intense, was repeated.  Over and over.  This is what students are like, I thought, full of command and importance, heavy with expensive gear.
-They’re shooting a movie, I said to my lover.
She made a noise from the couch.  Lackadaisically she said, Bettina, bean sprout, come over here.
-They moved in next door, I said.
-Honey, she said, lifting her head, I can’t tell you how many people have come and gone from that house.  Come away from the window.
She blew smoke rings that flattened in the light from the TV.
I  pulled myself away from the window and slumped beside her.
-You’re leaving me, she said sullenly, her eyes on Morley Safer.
I’d met Sue and I’d seen students.  Upstairs, under her mattress, I had university application forms filled out and ready to mail.
-After all I’ve done for you.
She turned to look at me, hard and grey.  She stubbed out her cigarette and kissed me.  She moved so her hands were covering my breasts then lowered her mouth to tongue my nipple through my shirt.
-Stupid Bettina, she murmured and nipped me.
I was certain the students outside could see her.  -Oh! I said and grabbed the back of her head.
-If we only have each other, she said huskily.  If we stand together, Bettina.  All my life I spent looking for you, all my life.  Do you love me?  Oh little moron, do you love only me?
She eased my jeans from my hips.  I thought of the students, the slight rain, the spotlights.

Today, without being stopped for my tail lights, I drive to Shaughnessy.  There are no universities in Shaughnessy, but this is an area of town with educated people.  In my preacher’s car I have been to all of the good areas, to Kits, to West Vancouver, to the university endowment lands where houses cannot be bought but only leased.  I recognize education in the way women and men move.  I see algebra in the tilt of women’s creamy necks and architecture in men’s firm backs.  In Shaughnessy, though, not many people are evident.  But I understand this means the women and men are at work in their beautiful offices before coming home to their beautiful houses, houses bigger, some of them, than universities.
I stop for stamps.

On television I watch Days of Our Lives.  I watch in spandex in case Michael Easton, the actor who plays Tanner, can see me.  I wouldn’t know what to do with a boy, what to do with Tanner, but I like to look my best for him weekday afternoons at three.

She sleeps with girls when she is gone from the house.  She thinks I don’t understand this, she thinks I don’t know.  But I can smell girls on her fingers; I can tell who’s a junkie, who’s an alcoholic.  She leaves substance traces on my skin.
-Don’t get cocky, she told me once.  Nothing lasts forever.
I sat at the table copying out recipes she’d brought home.  I said, This Alfredo sauce has cream in it.
-I could tell you to leave.
-I thought you were watching your cholesterol.
-Boom, she said.  You’d be gone.

I want her.  She knows I want her.  I want her so badly it starts as an ache in my stomach and moves up and down me, up to the crown of my head and down to my toes.  I dream she will let me go to school, that I will go to school and nothing here will change, that after years of school we’ll sell this house and move to West Vancouver.  She will have her money.  I will have my education.  I dream we’ll be happy.
The first time she touched me I thought I gave birth.  I thought her fingers were the head of the baby I once was and I was coming out of myself into the shimmery blue of our bedroom like innocence.
Still, I realize it’s as she said, nothing lasts forever.  She will grow old.  Already when I pinch the skin on the rear of her hand it doesn’t sink back into place.  Already she’s a woman with enough skin for two women.

Sometimes I think the bad streets just past her windows belong to me.  Across the way, behind a low-slung group of row houses, a pink condominium grows and grows taller.  When I hold my lover mornings, her night-shirted back against my breasts, her smell salty, the big machines start up growling.  My lover swears and pulls a pillow over her head, but I am not angry.  This condominium, which will block our sunset, will be expensive enough to bring educated people to the neighbourhood.  All day I watch from our windows, watch the despairing women and scruffy men who live along our street carrying sacks of groceries, weighted down, and they are mine, as if borne of me, as if walking not on the broken sidewalk but inside her house and my body.  They are sad or violent.  They steal plants as if my nasturtiums will give them what they do not have.

Where we live, there are rats.  Though laundry is my responsibility, I am scared to descend into the basement where I hear, and sometimes see, rats skitter along the ceiling pipes.  In another house, in another life, in the life my lover took me from, a cat killed rats and I had to lift their warm, inert bodies in paper towels and carry them to the incinerator.  I saw their teeth.  But laundry is my responsibility, so after my television show I creep down to the basement, a place of darkness and webs.  I feel scared she’ll arrive home and catch me, I don’t know why.  I have the hamper in my shaking hands.  On top of the pile, her soiled underwear is vibrating.  I put the basket down and start to separate whites and colours.  I put her panties in the washing machine.  I put towels and sheets in the washing machine.  I do not see a rat.  There are droppings near the dryer, but for today, no rats.

In her fridge are mushrooms, a bag of swollen caps as fresh as I could want.  I know she intends me to make a meatless spaghetti sauce, but I decide on mushroom burgers.  Sometimes I am reckless with menus; sometimes curious dishes dance behind my eyes and it is all I can do to rid myself of Green Turtle Soup, so vivid does it become.  I pull hamburg buns from the freezer.  They are plump and covered in sesame seeds.  I set them to thaw.  While I chop mushrooms and celery I think of education.  Education is a drug in my brain, looping through it, startling my synapses.
At seven, I have everything ready.  The burgers are in the frying pan ready to cook.  The condiments are in the center of the set table.  I’ve even been downstairs; the laundry is dried and folded and put away.
But my lover doesn’t come home until a few minutes before midnight and when she arrives she brings a boy, a man, inside with her.  She introduces him as Pete.
-It’s time, she whispers to me.  High time.  She slips her arms around me.  Take off your clothes, she says.
The boy, the man, is pretty, a young blonde boy with long hair.
-Bettina, sugar, put on some candles.  Fill the bathtub.
Her voice is hoarse.

After it is over, when we have done it, when my lover and Pete are sprawled on the bedsheets sleeping, I pull free.  My body aches.  I have done things I never believed I would do and I have watched my lover do these same things.  I dress and stand looking at them.  The room is steamy.  Luckily the application is at the end of the bed; carefully I slide my hand between the mattresses and pull it free.  They don’t stir.  I take stamps from my jean pocket and adhere them.
I don’t clean myself.  I know I am messy but I don’t use the bathroom, just dress and leave the house with my car keys.

I use the mailbox at Postal Station K, the closest to her house.  I am still not stopped by police – I don’t know if I have brake lights or not – and when I come home I retrieve the fuchsia, none the worse for wear, from the cabinet.
As I carry it onto the porch she says, I noticed that was missing.
I startle.  She is sitting in a corner on one of her blue chairs, her legs curled under her, smoking.
-Bettina, she says, staring right at me.  You clod.  I know what you’ve done.
-Is Pete upstairs?
-Don’t think you fool me.
-I love you.
For a minute we’re both quiet.  Then softly she says, I hit your car this morning, you know.  My brakes must be going.
Standing on tiptoe I hook the plant on a nail where it sways wildly for a second.
-Nothing matters, she says.  She lights a cigarette from the butt of the one she’s smoking.
-Some things matter, I say.  We matter.
-I tried everything.
-I didn’t want Pete, I say, or Kirsten.  I wanted you.
-Kiss me, she says.
-I’m not leaving you, I say, it’s just school.  Maybe they won’t even take me.  I go across and sit on her lap as I have sat on her lap for months.  Her hand smooths the hair from my temples so gently and sweetly I almost cry.
-Bettina, she says.  Little puppy, little pussy.
She surrounds me like a bubble; each of my breaths is the stale air from her mouth.  She is everything to me.  She is my lungs, my heart, every bone in my body.
-Aren’t you hungry? I whisper at last.  Aren’t you starved?

–Hunger, from the story collection Hunger, Oberon Press; first appeared in Paragraph Magazine, winner of the Erotic Fiction Contest