A Leopard or A Whale Maybe

Animal I’ll Surely Become

Oh my God. Listen to this, I said to my daughter. I read her the line about pirates shooting the 5000 acres at Rousby and having among their provision demands “hogsheads full of tobacco.” I slapped my thigh and waited for her reaction. She nodded and reminded me that I don’t need to buy any new books. Sigh. She is wrong, of course. I told her that I was going to read the copy of Shout she had placed on my shelf. I promised. And then just as the daughter cries to her dad that she wants stories and adventures, too, I put Animal You’ll Surely Become down and picked up Shout to fulfill my promise to my daughter. Months ago, when my daughter gave me Shout, she said she wanted me to meet the author. I read /at/ it and groaned over the wounds I knew it would reopen. Put it on the shelf. Watched it watching me. Watched my watch as I waited for other books. Now here she is heading off to college in a few weeks and I knew I needed to do this thing for her. Not because I want to meet the author. But because I want to meet her expectations. When I became a parent this instantly became the thing I hoped for most. To be enough for them. So, I put down Animal You’ll Surely Become and picked up Shout. It took a day, maybe two or three. I put my post-it pack down half way through and recognized my daughter having handed me something in which to see my reflection. A life spent learning not to be afraid anymore. A life finding room for my shouting rage and my growth. I am a life finding space on a page. Always. And yes, I am becoming an animal.

I told her Shout was as great as she knew it would be and I turned to Hailer’s Deer Skin. I don’t love remembering how to style the names of essays in books but I love this book. So Ima focus on that and ask you to forgive my lapsed MLA or whatever. I knew that today would be the day I finished. This book is delicious. I recognize so many of its ingredients from my own life’s pantry and freezer. Pain like raw meat – stiff and bloody no matter how long it has waited its turn to be cooked, old spices handed down whether we wanted them no matter, and green growth everywhere except in the bank accounts. Hailer pulls it all out, chops, kneads, adds sugar and I eat. Tense switching to give myself the permission I already know I need to come back to this book when I am hungry, I bounce in a club next to Bourgeoisie, the queen, alongside big-haired, loud-mouthed friends I miss so much from the days of small liberal arts college theater productions and anthropology classes. I reach up and touch my own head and feeling no horns growing, I decide it is ok to think about my own father while I read about this one.

He is bigger than mine and has lived longer but they are connected by the thread of what works if you work it. Addiction is a byproduct of the trauma and anguish my father endured. I may never know for sure but I believe the IT of his life happened when he was in the army. Years ago I requested his military service record because I wanted to know what his life had been like in Vietnam and Cambodia. And then I didn’t find the courage to complete the documentation process. I let my request expire and stared at photos of him instead. In Animal, this woman’s 6’4″ father is continually trying to deal with the small spaces that press him. He has survived what Laurie Halse Anderson calls the wreck room. Maybe not the same exact place but the same exact space. And the woman in Animal has survived just like we did. A party, a public place, my own bedroom. A boy, a man meant to protect, a nameless not-date doing violence that is everything and anything but intimate or partner. And someone will always say it couldn’t have been them. Someone will always say her cousin didn’t slip his hand into your swimsuit’s layered crotch at the lake because she didn’t see it. Someone will always say her boyfriend never laid a finger on her child because he wouldn’t hurt a fly. Someone will always say that woman was just making a man out of that boy and hold a hand high in the air where the boy can’t reach allowing him to swing and miss at it. Allowing him to get mad enough to grab a stick and swing for the belly of the moon. And one day, like the brother, we imagine he will read and finally cry. Or see a movie. Or that one day there will be no more someones to always say a goddamned thing except “I believe you.”

I re-read the movie outing with the dad and find a thread again. It is familiar to me but I was much younger. My father was freshly clean, too. Newports not yet turned up to 100. He wanted to impress me (I think). Hailer describes meeting a father for the first time. I will have that meeting across the divide of physics. His particles swirling around me; mine remembering when he decided that I had NOT been to the movies, ever. Mind you, my mom took me to the movies nearly every weekend as what I am sure was a stabilizing escape ritual for her. ET at a drive in where I feel asleep right around Drew Barrymore’s Halloween face. Car Wash at a theater in Irvington near the big bus station where I wore hands full of rings from the Union Market’s dollar booth. And, an anniversary showing of Uptown Saturday Night at Newark Symphony Hall. Because predators get to live in so many of our memories, uninvited. My mom took me to the movies. But my dad took me to a movie like the trip to see “Spotlight” in A Body Marching Blindly Home. My father took me to see “Platoon” yeah I know. We sat in a balcony and I kept having to dip my head below the safety bar to see the whole screen. He had popcorn and cigarettes. He did not have tears but most of the other men spread out around the theater did. I could see them shaking and crying. I remember holding onto my father through his coat. He didn’t like to take his coat off. We rode the train home and he told me he had been where that movie was. I hope I looked at him with compassionate eyes. I hope I put my head on his shoulder. I hope I made him feel less like the animal he was surely becoming under that camel colored three-quarter shearling coat he had begun using as skin. But, I don’t recall. I do recall that he brought me home and convinced my mom to let him tuck me in. As he lowered his voice and recited the Dolemite version of The Signifyin’ Monkey, he became a lion. Bruised and bruising; tired and heavy; too many teeth, not enough food. He had no idea that his ten year old had already been to war, too.

So, Brittany, this meal you made with the trauma and the words and the plantations still being pillaged with us standing on them? It is delicious. I took in every salt, sugar, fat, umami and when I looked at my hair with rosette patterns of missing color, my short legs maybe stunted by too much running from rats and ghosts of rats, and my four cubs who I’ll keep shielding from snakes and crocodiles as long as I can, I decided that perhaps I am becoming a leopard. And that I will likely die from trying my best never to consume another soul. That, or I will adapt.

Earlier today I put three boxes of books out on my lawn with a FREE BOOKS sign. I put everything from Stephen King to Jesus Always to How to Create Your Own Gift Basket Business to Aristotle (because I prefer my own rhetoric and poetics) out there. The neighborhood kids came by to pick through as I was writing this. Most of them found nothing they wanted. But one tiny girl scurried in front of all of them and started stacking books in her arms. She put her chin on top of what should have been the last one and then reached out for the Norton Anthology of Poetry. She walked a bit and they all tumbled down onto the ground. I think she was embarrassed so she just left them there. I came outside and started to pick them up. The other kids ooooohed and pointed to her. I laughed and thought about getting back to the book blog. They scattered but the tiny girl stayed behind. She said “I’m sorry. I wanted the books but I just couldn’t carry them.” I asked her if I could give her a couple that I thought she might like. As I hit publish on this, she had just trotted up the street with Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters and Keelboat Annie. I’m sure her elbow will cut anyone who tries to mess with these books she secured under her arm. Perhaps I am becoming more whale than leopard – sharing my knowledge of the ocean with smaller fish and swallowing only men who are headed where they shouldn’t be.


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