Astonishing

ASTONISHING

By Mrs Fringe

Chapter One

 

 

Their mother died of happiness. The doctors say it was an aortic aneurysm, but the truth understood by the Young sisters is that Clotilde’s heart burst when she saw the birth of her first and only grandchild, a girl to continue the line. The baby’s face came out pointing up to the light in a way the midwife said was the cause of the extraordinarily long labor. She didn’t know that was the way of all the Young girls, at least those born to the “right” side of the family. Faces up and gleaming, sunny side eggs to begin a new day.

The sharp sweet tang of earth surrounds all of the mourners. It’s punctuated by cumin floating on the downtown breeze from the taco truck. Underneath is a layer of gasoline and exhaust, grounding them to the reality of a park built on top of a defunct railway in the middle of Manhattan.

Picnic baskets are not so discreetly tucked into the grass like candles lining the way to an altar.

Christina watches her sister; notes the way tears trace a delicate path from the corners of her eyes, along her jaw line, and drip down to the baby sucking at her breast. The infant squinches her face and flings out her fisted arms with each drop. It must feel like a wave to that tiny creature. Is she drinking her mother’s tears along with the milk? Christina imagines her niece will grow up to crave things like kettle corn and salted fudge, trying to recreate these first flavors.

No tears for her, just beads of sweat running along her temples. She licks the salt that pools at the corners of her lips. The sun beats down on all of them, a respectable gathering of thirty-ish people. Not bad for August, when most of their friends and acquaintances are hiding from the New York humidity at beach houses along the shore, or country houses in the woods of Vermont.

Is Brigitte crying from sorrow for their loss? Or hormonal joy from the birth of her daughter, eleven days old?

No one speaks as the hole is dug, three feet across and four feet deep. A young dogwood tree waits to be planted in its new home, burlap wrapped roots set to push forward and choke any stray remnants of track. The plain box Christina holds feels weightier than her mother had alive, ashes pulling downward, ready to feed the tree. The sun’s glare only adds density, doing nothing to brighten her heart.

Brigitte had secured the permit for them to gather and plant a tree in honor of their mother on the High Line. If she were in a betting mood, Christina would say she wouldn’t have been able to get the permit or permission for planting if it was she making the arrangements. But good things happen for Brigitte, the same way good things used to happen for Clotilde. Of course, the city’s Parks Department didn’t know they were adding their mother to the new planting, but whatever. It isn’t like the ashes or the thin pine box will kill anything.

Brigitte nudges Christina with her elbow and whispers, “Do you have to look so serious?”

That answers the hormone-grief question.

“It’s a funeral.” And her brain is expanding and contracting with the grind of the garbage truck below them. She wants to be finished with this part and get to her wine before it loses its chill in the insulated bag.

“It isn’t a funeral. We discussed this. Clotilde was very clear; she wanted a celebration of her life. This is a memorial.”

Christina keeps her eyes on the poor guy sweating his ass off, digging.

The worker steps back and nods to them; his work is finished for the moment. He heads towards the taco truck, and will return when Christina tells him they’re ready.

Brigitte steps forward. “Does anyone want to say anything, recite a poem, sing a song while we labor?” Her voice is bright, matching the overhead glare.

Christina knows the choice of words is intentional, a reminder to all that her sister is unable to shovel any dirt. Midwife’s orders. After all, Brigitte is recovering from the one true labor.

She won’t speak, will plant her mother while the more theatrical among them recite fabulous and appropriate quotes. She had thought about it, but the only poem she can remember the words to is Anne Sexton’s “In Celebration of My Uterus.”

Even in the fantastical world of theater and arts families, the Young women are atypical. Reverse patrons of the arts, their financial needs are met by those they embrace.

Christina catalogues the many ways she was a disappointment to her mother while the others sing show tunes. Maybe she can put this list of failures to music. It would bring her mother’s life full circle, seeing as Clotilde had been named for the patron saint of disappointing children. Christina has been fulfilling the prophecy for thirty-seven years.

She keeps her back to the food truck in case the parks department guy looks over, and drops the box into the hole. Disappointment number one, despite her promising egg face, her fallback expression isn’t a smile of delighted expectation. In fact, left to its own devices, Christina’s features relax into perpetual “what the fuck is going on around here?” Hence her given name, chosen for the patron saint of mental disorders, Christina the Astonished.

She nestles the box against the roots of the tree. Disappointment number two, she doesn’t draw smiling people to her side, people who are so thrilled to bask in her glory they open their arms and hearts to share connections and windfalls.

Brigitte is reciting Edna St. Vincent Millay. Very appropriate, of course.

The first shovelful of earth scatters across the top of the box, and the garbage truck below belches and screams, a dozen Hefty bags popping as they’re crushed. Disappointment number three, instead of merely having the wrong—male—genes dominate and be a female of boring neutrality, when she was in puberty it became apparent she held some form of mutation of the Young gene. Christina attracts the questionable, the needy, and the crazies.

The box is disappearing, only the pale edges visible. Disappointment number four, she is average. Photos from her childhood show her in a stream of fluorescent colored dresses. Otherwise Clotilde would lose sight of her first born, and forget her. More than once as a child she found herself on the wrong side of their apartment door, waiting to be remembered.

John, the most faithful of all her mother’s groupies, is giving her a full wattage stage smile. He’s ready to sing, but wants to shovel at the same time, so his voice will give an Angela Lansbury quiver as he does. His partner is in the shade of a young oak tree, checking his cell phone.

Disappointment number five, Christina isn’t a lesbian. It would have mitigated the sting of a firstborn girl with oatmeal looks and gray spirit if she had at least been a militant feminist. Not to mention providing a perfect reason to surround them in literal rainbows. Alas, no. Nor is she spectacularly sexual, reveling in explorations of her physical self. A waste of splendid breasts, according to her mother and sister.

Life is a cabaret indeed. And every smiling singer clustering around the tree is one who always gets a call back when they audition.

“Sorry, Mama.”

She passes the shovel, and moves to the back of the line.

 

Christina aches without the weight of the box or shovel. Feels exposed, a band-aid ripped off before the wound has closed. The call of her bottle of chardonnay is louder than her sister’s voice, asking her to hold the baby for a minute. Oh yes, the bottle slick with cool condensation. Who invented disposable wine glasses? Brilliant. The deep flavor should be wrong in the oppressive heat, but it isn’t. She has splurged on this label, and the rich wine coats her tongue, her throat, with a toasted butter flavor that has to equate the breakfast she skipped this morning.

She falls back onto her elbows and squints at the new dogwood. It has a definite list to the right. Trying to protect Clotilde? Don’t bother, little tree. She’s just fine, as always. Dropping down further, she lets her head pillow into the cold bag filled with ice. The best kind of brain freeze, from the outside in.

“Really, Christina, why do you always separate yourself?” Her sister’s shadow falls across her chest but does nothing to block the sun.

“Untwist your panties, Brigitte. Everyone is enjoying their salute to Mama, and I am too. Aren’t you supposed to abstain?”

She gestures with her glass towards her sister’s beer bottle. A bit splashes out from the narrow rim and lands on her chest. She swipes her finger across the drop and into her mouth. Thirty-four, ninety-nine. Christina has no intention of wasting a cent.

“One beer is fine, I would never harm Little Mary. It’s good for my let-down.”

She eyes Brigitte’s cleavage, newly blue veined mountains pouring over her wrap dress, one damp patch over the left nipple. She can’t imagine there being any issue with milk supply. Her sister’s voice is sun and blood and heat. Christina pushes her head deeper into the plastic covered ice mound and closes her eyes.

“Don’t you want to sit with John, Gabriel and I? John is telling marvelous Clotilde stories.”

“I’m sure he is, thank you.”

Shit. Christina finishes her glass and pours another, an exact one-quarter inch from the rim. She needs to word her way to the smile necessary for Brigitte to believe all is well and move on. Torn between wanting to draw out the wine and wanting her sister to go back to her own spot. Little Mary begins to wail, making her decision. Two liquid long swallows and she sits up, pats the younger woman’s cheek.

Brigitte, patron saint of newborns and nuns, really does mean well. She draws kindness and beauty because she is kindness and beauty.

Christina smiles. “I’m ok, truly. Go feed Little Mary before that beer goes to waste. I just want to have some quiet time before I have to go to work.”

“You have to work today? Couldn’t they give you the day off?” Her voice has an upward lilt, every sense seeking the light.

“I didn’t ask. I don’t have to be in until two, and it seems better to keep myself busy. Now go, before John tries to feed that baby by himself.”

“Okay.” Brigitte leans down, her lips soft and warm against Christina’s forehead. “Don’t drink too much. You have to be safe on the subway all the way up to the Bronx.”

This time Christina smiles from the inside. To her sister and mother, the Bronx might as well be Nebraska, just somewhere you pass over or through on your way to somewhere else.

“It’s all good, sis. No worries.”

The leaves of the oak tree shading her are whispering as she watches Brigitte walk away. They echo the notes of the wine. “Change, change, it’s time for a change.”

She pours another glass. Frigid pillow and icy gold cool her brain. This is what she needs to move forward. No change. She dropped out of college after three and a half years, but she had taken a few psych classes. Enough to know the death of a parent is enough of a change to qualify as a trauma. Not a time to make any other life-altering decisions. Enough to land her job as a case manager in a residential treatment program.

Another glass, giving up the idea of savoring, wanting to consume it all before the bottle stops sweating. The hollow at the bottom of the green glass suctions to her chest. A vacuum representing something she doesn’t want to think about.

###

16 comments

  1. Absolutely gorgeous. Like Jeffrey Eugenides and Ann Patchett had a love child that wrote this and took all the Pulitzers in the world and then drank really good chardonnay. Agents, publishers, what are you waiting for??

    Like

  2. I’m glad you did this, Mrs Fringe.

    Reading this chapter again was an odd experience for me, like I was meeting an old friend on the street, except. . .

    Kind of like, instead of thinking, How nice to see you again, I’m thinking, Oh shit, Christina, wtf are you DOING?

    But whatever she’s doing, she’s doing on her own terms. Sounds like somebody else I know.

    xoxo kk

    Like

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