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Authors: Laura Elizabeth Woollett

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He spoke in a low-pitched monotone, simultaneously stirring and difficult to make out. In his last decade, he often had problems with tooth pain, which proved later on to be of an entirely different nature. After the extraction of all the molars on his left side and the continuing trigeminal pain, he chewed with only one side of his mouth. I liked to think that I understood, through some secret attunement to suffering, the dark crescents of his under-eyes, the convict stubble of his jaw—prior to the pain, he had always been clean-shaven—and the spasms that occasionally caused his calm face to contort.

She didn’t suffer, so couldn’t have understood. She handed him glasses of water to wash down the pills, and his packet of Dunhills (the smoking was a recent thing, to speed up the action of his anticonvulsants; meanwhile, he’d given up alcohol altogether). Her hands were as soft and dainty as her feet. She was like a modern-day Mary Magdalene, or perhaps a Botticellian Venus: sea-green eyes, cupid-bow lips, scarlet curls of a meretrix. She also had a pair of dimples on her lower back, I knew, from the countless times I sat in on her dressing as a child. I was fascinated, once upon a time, by the lingerie drawer, and by the eau de parfum, which she spritzed all over her breasts and torso (not only the traditional pulse points at the wrists and throat). Married at twenty-three, widowed at forty-one, she maintained herself wonderfully over those eighteen years of wifehood.

In my own mind, it may not have been true love, but it was a nice arrangement. He gave her a large cut of his paycheck, enough to keep her occupied while he was writing his law reviews or rereading
The Nicomachean Ethics.
On weekend mornings, her moaning could be heard—high, delicate, persistent—from behind their bedroom door. The arrangement was liberal, almost aristocratic: the old world academic in his ivory tower, with the fresh, frivolous wife at his beck and call.

I wanted to believe that it was nothing more than an arrangement, that a god so cold, so rational, would never fall prey to anything as base as passion. Let us say they loved well: the ring fit and they procreated. I was born in the summertime, August 1985—the product of the god and the woman.

, my virginity is far more relevant than my father’s.

I was a Pre-Raphaelite’s dream come true. Auburn hair, partway down my back, undulating and prone to flyaways. Deep-set almond eyes, which could morph from a rich, almost oriental black to a light-sodden leprosy of green and brown when I cried. My cheekbones were shaded, my brows dark, my pout petal-pink and obstinately wistful. I had the curious nose of any decent nymph, the pallid face, and the unwieldy, intellectual hands.

I was devoid of muscle tone and with my adamant, teenaged tendency not to eat much, invariably got dizzy toward the end of the day. At seventeen, my BMI was exactly level with my age; nevertheless, softnesses persisted. My backside had a stubborn layer of female fat, which no amount of skipped lunches could do away with. Although the prongs of my hips were sharp enough to bruise a man during sex, they were also shaped for childbearing. I had regular periods from the age of twelve and a half onward. My breasts were small and pretty, with areole the same color as my mouth.

I resented my body, even as I was entranced by it. I knew that its lushness was merely a semblance, disguising deep putrefaction, death. My warm breath was a funeral dirge. My burnished waves were the dead leaves of autumn. My smell was oversweet, with a catch of something acrid. As with all things green, my charm wasn’t in my freshness itself, but the certainty that it couldn’t last.

years, I shuffled through life: a life that was little more than a small eternity of lunchless lunch hours, hunger headaches, and a school within walking distance of my empty house. Weekdays held about as much interest and variation for me as the single slice of dry toast I started them with. My teachers rarely remarked upon my absences; my peers, still less. There is a sense of deliverance that I still associate with exiting past back buildings and strolling downhill, through dappled sun and shade, past the mansions and glass-fronted boutiques of Fillmore Street. On days like this, I could slip through the front door with a silvery clatter of keys and walk straight into the sunlit room where my father was aching.

The sunlit room with its lily vases, ashtrays, hanging spider plants, and smell of dust and sweat. Silverfish crawling out of the oldest books.

It happened now and then that I would come home while he was off work, nursing one of his “toothaches,” and would be obliged to fetch him his pain pills. The light would be coming in; impurities would be spotlighted inside the flower vases. His eyes would be screwed shut, either for the intensity of the sunlight or the intensity of his pain. I was aware that he barely distinguished between my mother and me in that state, in the midst of those throes that almost resembled ecstasy.

I would bring him his pill with water, never daring enough to bring his Dunhills as well. He would hold me there occasionally until the spasm was over, forcefully grasping at my arm or hand. The first time this happened, I almost jumped out of my skin—I was so unused to him touching me without warning. I was prepared, however, for following occasions: even found myself easing enough to reciprocate the contact. If he clenched my hand, I would clench his in return. If he clasped my arm, I would clasp one of his arms too. From above, I would observe the silvery sheen of his gritted teeth, the details of his grooming and how he had let it slip. When it was over, I would extricate myself gently, always careful not to rouse him by rising from the daybed too soon.

My movements conspired with his illness to blur the boundaries between wife and daughter. I had always believed that if he were to love me, really love me, it would be for the properties I shared with him, not because of any resemblance to her. It was becoming clearer to me, however, that one could not afford to be scrupulous in matters of love. I began to fantasize about using my likeness to her as a means of winning him over: of pulling down the blinds in the sunroom, watching him wash down his pills, and wafting over him like a sensuous phantom, like the smoke from the cigarettes I would bring to him immediately after.

two months away from my seventeenth birthday when he turned forty-four. The event fell on a Saturday, which meant that she did not lead him out of the bedroom until close to midday, looking charmingly shabby with his dark beard and ill-buttoned white shirt. I slit my eyes at her as she sat him down at the kitchen table, with a coquettish kiss on the forehead and ruffle of his bed hair. “Stay right there, birthday boy.” She squeezed his shoulders, before turning around and busying herself with his breakfast.

Unlike them, I was already bathed and dressed. I had wrapped up a copy of
Civilization and Its Discontents
in the original German, purchased weeks ago from the foreign-language bookstore. Though it was not my favorite of Freud’s works, I thought he’d appreciate the fact that it had won a Goethe prize. Picking up the package, I tiptoed over to where he sat and bent down to brush my lips lightly over his bristled cheek. It was the first time in months that I had kissed him and I was careful to do so as softly as possible. At the moment of contact, however, my father flinched and cursed as that whole side of his face was crippled by a lightning bolt of pain. “For Christ’s sake, Laurel!”

My mother set down the French press with a clatter and rushed to his side. “Oh, Jonathon! Jonathon, darling, I’m here,” she cooed into his ear, groping for his veiny left hand. Her softer, paler hand nestled inside his. In the midday light, his wedding band sparkled triumphantly. A gold crucifix glistened between her unfettered breasts.

I stood aside, casting my eyes down at the unopened Freud. It was obvious to me that she was to blame for the attack. She had clearly overtaxed his nerves with the excesses of that morning.

loved my mother once, passionately and indecently: loved with the love of a creature that is all body, and that depends on the body of another to survive. I had loved her, but early on I outgrew her, and my love soured like milk into something that resembled contempt.

He had never known his mother. Whatever he may have needed from her was supplied by bottled formula and Oma Marx, with her thick calves and coiled gray bun. That he was never truly nurtured may explain his asceticism as an adult; then again, it may also explain his attraction to my mother, and that milky-white hourglass figure of hers, with its balanced C-cups—the very embodiment of nourishment.

He proposed to her only five months after they met at a friend’s summer party. She had gone there barefoot, wearing only a white caftan, as if she could not afford to dress herself—although her pedicure told him otherwise. The pair were wedded in the April of 1984, in the Japanese gardens, when the cherry trees were in bloom. They honeymooned in Kyoto, feeding on seaweed, horseradish, and salmon roe, and sleeping late on a low futon bed behind the shoji. Their love was self-contained, absolute; it demanded no interference. I was conceived all the same. For that, I could never forgive them.

Snapshots from before I was born show my parents as I always knew them: degagé, in love. I was not a planned baby, but a happy accident, which prompted her well-off parents to make a deposit on what was to become the family home as a blessing. The photographs taken during her pregnancy all reveal the couple’s exhilaration, their high hopes, and my mother looking like a figure from Botticelli’s
. In pictures from my infancy, however, they’re just an inexpert pair in their twenties, dazed and stiffly clutching their dribble-chinned baby girl.

My first distinct memories come from when I was a toddler, aged two or three. The earliest: a dinner party at the home of another young married couple, where the adults drank together and I was thrust among my peers until—teetering into the winey, hazy, high-ceilinged room—my mother took me precariously onto her knee. Another, also a party: at a foreign patio, with crêpe paper, dream catcher, marijuana fumes, and women congregated incongruously around a chocolate fountain. My father appears rarely, if ever, in these early remembrances of mine: little more than a moving shadow; a dull, indecipherable baritone; a hand cinching the fabric of her waist.

BOOK: The Wood of Suicides
12.32Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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