I went with my mother to see Etta in her new home in February, around Valentine’s Day. I was anxious to see her and embarrassed by my sentimental feelings. I had thought about my aunt for a couple of months, but hardly had spoken a word to her since my fifteenth birthday in November. It was the funk I was in; lethargy was a viscous liquid, pouring heavy on me and turning into pounds as I occupied my days with soap operas, fattening snacks, and stale fantasies. Now it was winter. Even the morning sun seemed to be a frozen pink orb sitting on the icebergs off Good Harbor, ready to crack in half if you blew your warm life breath on it.
We drove up the long sloping driveway, wet from melting ice, and parked next to Patrick’s yellow Volkswagen Bug with a Vietnam Vet plate. The Bug sat in front of a dilapidated shed that had a sagging roof and peeling white paint. Behind us the entire house was peeling white paint, a grander version of the shed. It was an old farmhouse built in 1874, as the plaque near the front door stated. Etta appeared at a side door in a gray button-down sweater, something an old spinster might wear. Her dark eyes were void of that black coal eyeliner, her trademark. She was more reserved, and I thought of the Portuguese Virgin Mary statue downtown when I looked at her. “The Blessed Mama is preggers there,” my friend Molly told me once when we were cutting across the lawn of the church last summer.
My mother went to her sister, perfunctorily hugged her and kissed her on the cheek. My emotional energy dissipated watching them greet each other; I didn’t want to look like a fool and get all crazy with tears and such, so I kissed hello, stoically, just like my mother did.
I asked for the bathroom, a refuge to be alone for a moment to compose myself. I checked behind the shower curtain to view the tub, brown with age around the basin. There were bottles of shampoo and an old back-scrubbing brush hanging from the showerhead. I could see myself in the fixtures, a Samantha with a distorted head. Etta had cleaned this bathroom before we came. I opened the cabinet behind the mirror and spied razors, a bottle of aspirin, hemorrhoid cream, Scope mouthwash, and cotton balls. Typical bathroom toiletries. Much to my disappointment, my aunt and her lover appeared to be as normal as everyone else.
Next to the bathroom was a door to a separate room. I peered inside to find a mountain of junk, dressers, box springs, a white birdcage, oval framed pictures of people long dead, the television set with rabbit ears. On a dresser next to the door, resting atop a crocheted doily, was a Polaroid picture of a woman with cat eye glasses and white hair, wearing a lavender housedress. She looked like the Grateful Dead skeleton with skin draped over it. It must have been Patrick’s mother; someone had stuffed what was left of her in this room. I closed the door and went to the kitchen where my mother and Etta were having a casual conversation about the house. Etta called Patrick’s mother “the old lady,” and was bemoaning the effort it took to put the house back in order. “The tub was full of dishes; there was so much shit on the floor you couldn’t walk from one room to the next.” She lowered her voice and said, “The neighbor found the old lady lying in the living room with maggots in her eye sockets.”
“That’s horrible,” my mother said. “Where was Patrick?”
“Living and working in Boston at the time. He came up on weekends sometimes.”
“How old was she?”
“Oh you know, eighties. She was a tough old coot,” Etta replied. “Didn’t like to let people in her house.”
Etta said they put in the French doors to the dining room, called an exterminator, kicked out the raccoons in the fireplace. “Could you imagine?” My mother shook her head. Etta said she stripped the furniture, bought new curtains. She loved the place because it had charm, despite the water stains on the ceiling and the crumbling horse-hair plaster walls.
“I had to repaint the cabinets,” Etta continued.
“You did a nice job,” my mother said, examining her sister’s work.
“Thanks,” Etta said and smiled warmly. Both women simultaneously looked my way for a moment to invite me in to the conversation, and I noticed that they had the same pair of eyes. I had not seen it so pronounced before, this resemblance between them.
“Is it haunted?” I asked.
“Not that I know of,” said my aunt.
“So,” my mother said, clearing space in the conversation for herself. “What are your plans?”
“What do you mean.”
“Are you going to make this official?”
“This? You mean, shall I get a stamped piece of paper? I don’t think it’s necessary,” Etta said.
“Okay,” my mother said. And that was that. She was calm, her face was not contorted in frustration, her mouth was not tightly shut, her eyebrows were not elevated in anger. I waited for something from Etta, but she turned away, went to the refrigerator and bent over to retrieve a Pepperidge Farm icebox cake. Etta sat down, pulled the cake from the box and cut into that delectable chocolate frosting with a butter knife. I nearly started to shiver with anticipation. That’s when my mother said, “Not too big. She’s got to watch it.”
“What do you mean I have to watch it?” I asked.
“You’ve got to watch how much you eat. You’re becoming voluptuous.”
Me, watch it? I still had the image of my girl body, thin legs and arms, bony knees and elbows. My image of myself was distorted, as it was the time I was six and I thought I could fall through the slits on the boardwalk down by St. Peter’s marina during Fiesta. My father had to put me up over his shoulders to keep me from becoming hysterical. It was the same ridiculous, childish thought—the thought that I could fall through a slit and the thought that I could fit into some of the pants you find on the rack at The Limited and Express.
“I’m getting fat,” I said to Etta. “Voluptuous is another word for fat.”
“That’s not what I said. You’re exaggerating,” my mother interjected.
“She’s becoming a woman,” Etta said. “This is what happens. Women become… soft.”
The truth is, my body was transforming into my mother’s body. My knees were becoming her knees, big knees with little fat dimples around them. My spare tire belly, hers too. Etta, though rounder, did not have the patches of fat around the knees.
I had taken a few bites of the cake and pushed it aside. I would stop stuffing myself right then and there. I would start running.
“Oh just eat it for cryin’ out loud,” Etta said.
“No,” I said adamantly.
“Okay, fine,” Etta said, taking half of it with her fork and stuffing it in her face.
After we had our cake, we went to the nursery where Etta had just painted the walls a lime green. There were framed pictures of cartoon bunnies and duckies, a nest of eggs over the crib. All of the furniture was freshly painted white. A baby’s quilt with knitted rattles and bears was draped over the crib. Somehow it all seemed right. My mother fingered the fabric. “Lovely,” she said. Then we climbed the narrow staircase to Patrick’s studio where there were holes and strips of torn wallpaper. Patrick was standing at an easel with his John Lennon glasses hanging at the tip of his nose. He seemed less arthritically stiff, and I noticed then how the extra scruff of his unshaven face had made him seem more male, as did the flannel shirt with a small patch of hair sneaking up over the top button. In that moment I could see how Etta found Patrick attractive.
“My, you have quite a view from up here,” my mother said.
“Yes,” he said. “I find it peaceful.”
The pink was settling to gray outside and it was colder; the melting snow was starting to crystallize into winter again. Patrick’s studio was drafty but equipped with a heater that smelled like electricity, the coils inside blazing a neon fire. There was a boom box playing Chopin, canvases of all shapes and sizes with horrid blotches of paint. Coffee cans of brushes, crowded wooden benches, piles of pictures of men dressed in camouflage, goofing around with their helmets resting on their machine guns, or looking bored, smoking. On the wood floor were splotches of paint framed with masking tape. I noticed one of the framings was reproduced on a canvas resting on an easel. Patrick informed me these painting were his “gravity” series. “It was serendipitous,” he said. “I got the idea when I looked down at the paint that dripped onto the floor and liked the design there better than the one on the canvas. Your mind can’t help but play with it, you know, like a Rorschach test.”
“So in actuality, the viewer is the artist,” Etta said.
“Interesting,” my mother said, bored.
“What do you see here?” Patrick asked us, holding up the canvas of scarlet red blotches.
“Paint,” my mother said.
“I see red climbing roses, like the ones on the side of the house last summer,” Etta offered.
“What do you see, Samantha?” Patrick asked.
“I see a head wound.”
“Hmmm. Yes,” Patrick said. “Exactly.”
I wandered around the room, until I found a painting of Etta in the nude. Oh here we go, I thought. Upon a closer look, it was indeed lovely, not in a Botticelli kind of way, but an Egon Schiele kind of way: less ethereal goddess, more visceral human. Patrick had given Etta’s body his complete attention, every stroke, a rendering of truth.
“Huh,” my mother said, viewing the painting.
“This is how we met,” Etta said. “Patrick asked me if I would model.”
“She’s my muse,” Patrick said, regarding Etta with a countenance of pure love.
“Here, there are more,” he said, and hobbled over to the wall, pointing to a few canvases on the floor. I wondered then, as I watched him move without his cane, if there was shrapnel in his legs.
The paintings revealed how Etta’s body changed with her pregnancy, how the hips rounded, the belly and the breasts bloomed. It was a manifestation of Etta’s personal celebration, the burgeoning body, the lowered eyelids, the smile of subtle joy.
“Well Etta, thank God Pop is dead because if he weren’t, this would surely kill him,” my mother said.
Etta rolled her eyes at my mother. “But what do you think,” Etta said calmly.
My mother went closer to the paintings. She stepped back, tilted her head some more. “What do I think?” she asked. “What do you want me to say?”
“One word,” Etta said. “Give me one word.”
My mother didn’t answer. She went to Etta and put her hand on her belly and rested it there. Etta put her hand over my mother’s. I felt the need to hide when I looked at her.
“Why don’t you two stay for dinner? We have plenty,” Etta asked.
“Oh no,” my mother said, withdrawing her hand. “There’s nothing in the house. I was going to stop off at the market on the way home. Sam can stay.”
“I have homework,” I said.
“It’s Friday night,” my mother replied. “And you don’t have any plans. You never do.”
“In that case, you can sleep over,” Etta said. “Patrick is going to make paella.”
“Wow,” my mother said. “A man who cooks and paints his girlfriend in the nude. What more could a woman ask for?”
Etta draped a white cloth over the dining room table and lit slender white candles while Patrick hummed to the soft Jazz record on the stereo as he shucked and chopped. He placed the meal in an exotic clay pot and baked it in the oven. Etta poured me some red wine in a long-stemmed glass and melted brie to swipe with crackers. They moved in and out of each other’s space without touching, and I wondered whether they were just being polite, squelching any tendencies toward affection for my sake, the guest. And I felt like a guest, not a kid. They asked me questions, and I told them my thoughts. They considered my thoughts. We talked about art—Patrick was studying Pollock and Etta was reading Whitman. It was comfortable and congenial being in their house of sin, as my mother often referred to it, and I opted to stay for the night instead of hightailing it home. Plus, the wine made me unbearably sleepy, as did the heat hissing and clanging from the radiators in the dining room.
It was cold in the bedroom, and I immediately sobered up. I could see into the neighboring house perfectly from Patrick’s old bedroom; someone was watching the television show Barnaby Jones. I waited to see the person who’d found the old coot with her eye sockets full of maggots, but he must have been sitting out of my view, asleep on the couch or engaged in some task. I made sure the shades were pulled down so the person couldn’t see how, when I removed my bra, my breasts hung down like eggplants. I looked at myself in the mirror and the cold aroused me. I became strange, perverted, in Patrick’s old bedroom.
There was still a masculine feel to the room, despite Etta’s attempt at neutralizing it with feminine attributes—a mauve quilt with eyelet pillow shams and valence curtains. The room with its dark colonial furniture reminded me of the inside of a ship. Above the bed hung, most appropriately, a painting of a vessel in a storm (obviously done in an earlier period). There was a dusty bottle of Brut on the dresser, and adhered to the old, colonial desk was a sticker of the Grateful Dead skeleton, wearing a wig and holding a red rose in its bony hand. Patrick’s senior picture rested on the desk, and I picked it up to look at it more closely. He had calm eyes, blond hair brushing his shoulders, cheeks with a slight dimple in the smile. I thought of pressing the cool glass to my bare chest.
My aunt had given me one of her nightgowns, a long black satin gown with spaghetti straps and lace at the bust and hem. I looked as if I were ready for a tryst. There was a knock at the door then, and my aunt peeked her head in.
“Look at you,” she said. I crossed my arms over my chest in response. Etta waltzed in. “Do you need a robe? Here, let me go and get you a robe. It can get drafty in this house.” She went to fetch the robe and I pulled back the covers and burrowed into the bed. I was chilled to the bone. Etta came back in and draped her blue robe across the mauve quilt. “There are some blankets in the hall closet if you need them. I just changed the sheets on this bed, so they are clean.
Anything else?” she asked.
“Nothing I can think of.”
“Okay then,” Etta said, her lips forming a cryptic smile. “You know, I thought of you the other day. A woman was shaping a mermaid in the sand down at the beach. When she left I went up to it, and I saw your face.”
“Is she still there?” I asked.
“She slipped under the water when the tide came in. It reminded me of the sailor story Daniel used to tell of a young girl who was sold as a wife to an old man. She tried to kill herself by diving off a cliff into the ocean, but instead of dying, she was transformed when she hit the water.”
“Into what?” I asked.
“A selkie, a mermaid, some type of sea creature.”
The floorboards in the hallway creaked. Etta’s face registered someone there; she murmured something to Patrick as he passed her.
Last summer, when she came to live with us, I defied my father and his warnings of the treacherous rip tide and followed her to Salt Island during a full or new moon—only then does the sea part enough to expose a path through the water to the rocky shoals. Etta dove into the water crisscrossing over the sandbar and swam its length. When she came up, her hair was a long fin. We rummaged through the brush and found fire pits with beer tabs and, like primitive people, squatted on our haunches, sifting through the ash and shards of glass to find usable relics. Etta showed me how to take beer can tabs and curl the tab part over the handle part, connecting them to one another in strands for necklaces and bracelets. I thought maybe we could build a hut and buy a rowboat and marry sailors, giving birth to babes as slick as seal pups, birthing them in tidal pools, where they slipped into the foaming waves, lost.
She had come to us after the separation, after Daniel had left to go live on his boat. We had seen him once on Salt Island when we were on the rocks. Like us, he was looking for a hideout. Etta acknowledged him with a raised eyebrow and turned her back. He waited for her to turn around, looked at me; his face was scrawnier then, unshaven. Young. I couldn’t speak, and it seemed wrong because I called him uncle and he sat at our table and told us sailor stories and jokes. He fixed his motorcycle with my father’s tools. I remember how his goodbye kiss smelled of beer and cloves. He ceded the place to us. We left shortly after, when others made their way through the brush, lovers looking for a place to be alone.
“You seem happy here. Happier than when you lived with Daniel,” I said.
“It’s a borrowed house, Samantha,” Etta said.
“Patrick doesn’t own it?”
“I don’t own it,” she said. “Night night,” she said, and switched off the light.
I turned to the window to see if my friend Barnaby was awake, but the television and the lights were shut off and I could see nothing but darkness and a figure swimming through it. “There is no man,” I told her and pulled the shade.
It took me a while to fall asleep because I was cold and terrified the ghost of the old coot would hover over me in the night, or sit on my chest and sniff at my soul, like a cat. I shifted, pulled the sheets from the mattress, lay awake listening to the wind, to the house settling further into its bones. I got up, wrapped the robe around me, went out to the hall closet to get the blanket. I turned on the light and expected to see the old lady standing at the far end of the hall, but there was no one. When I was warm enough to fall asleep, I dreamt of Patrick’s studio, only there were no paintings in it, just mannequins he was fitting together for a front window at Filene’s. But he was putting the legs where the arms should be and the arms where the legs should be, and the people looked like crabs. I was telling him this was something he shouldn’t do; we were going to get in trouble with the manager. It was in this state of anxiety that I awoke to someone fumbling with the doorknob to my room.
The door slowly creaked open wide enough for me to see a figure. I could feel my heart beat clear through to my throat, and I nearly puked from fright. The figure hobbled into the room, and I immediately knew it was Patrick and not the old coot. He stood above me for a moment, and I became aware of the hair on his skinny legs, the too-short shirt that exposed a glimpse of whitey tighties. I slid to the side of the bed against the wall while he groped for the covers and then, in one motion, twisted and fell flat on his back. He started to snore. I was paralyzed and lay crunched next to the wall thinking of what to do next. Then I heard footsteps outside in the hall; someone had pulled the door shut. What the f is going on here, I thought. What kind of place is this?
When Patrick stopped snoring, I stared at him long and hard, and he turned to face me. He opened his eyes, and I could see the spark of blue in the little bit of light in the room. I was thinking, Can he see me? I felt his warmth reach my skin. Then he placed his hand under my robe and slid it down my hip. He hoisted me up, and I saw then the flex of a secret muscle in his arm, a strength he did not have during waking life; it was a muscle Rodin would have sculpted. I lay atop him; he cupped my chin, pulled me toward him. He slid the nightgown down and put his mouth to my skin, and I folded in the heat, collapsing into him. I relented, went toward his mouth, kissed, gave in. It was a transformative heat, a melding into the soft and hard parts of him amidst the ebb and flow of breath. After a while, my legs tingled and then went numb. Then, quite suddenly, the epicenter of me split and quaked. I fell back, aside him, slid down to the floor, entangled in the sheet. I couldn’t move my legs. He started to snore and I recoiled, breathless but aware. I carefully shimmied away and untangled myself from the sheet like a fish from a net and sat there listening to him snoring and breathing while my body throbbed in pleasant aftershocks. When it was over, I went to my aunt’s room and found her propped up in bed, a silhouette.
“Aunt Etta,” I whispered.
I cleared my throat. “He wanted his bed back,” I said.
“He was sleepwalking?”
“Yes, I think so.”
“He does that sometimes. Come under with me.”
The bed was warm from her body, and I immediately felt heavy under it. I slid under the weighted covers and turned to see the profile of her face, highlighted by the moonlight coming from the window.
“I shut the door. He was in there, and I shut the door on you,” she said. I held my breath. Was this a confession? “I came back and saw that he wasn’t here,” my aunt continued. She drew in a breath and let it out. Her voice was slurred, soft. “I couldn’t move. Everything got so heavy, and I couldn’t move.”
“Oh,” I said, stupidly.
It was all so surreal and strange, like everyone in the house was an altered self, the self that’s slowed and blurred, as if it were under water.
I lay there staring at the ceiling, waiting. A clock ticked softly near her end of the bed. Etta turned toward the wall, indicating that she wanted to sleep, but just when I thought she had nodded off, she spoke. “Sometimes I think I can hear it, from way up here,” she said.
“The drone of a boat.”
“He’s searching for me out there.”
She sniffed, stirred in the bed. I heard it then—a small cry.
After a few moments, her breath became a constant rolling rhythm. The clock ticked, a rhythm under a rhythm. There was something familiar about that rhythm under a rhythm that put me at ease, but I kept one eye peeled until dawn, more awake than I had been all winter.