“[T]he existence, or non-existence, of a road is a non-copyrightable fact.” —Alexandria Drafting Co. v. Amsterdam (1997)
Twitch of the cartographer’s hand and a street is born, macadam free, a tree-lined absence, paved with nothing but a name. No sidewalks, no chalk, no children’s voices, a fence unlinked from its chains, the cars unmoored, corn left to its rubble, some wandering mailman, a house unbuilt, the bricks unlayed, the mortar unmixed; of the things that hold more things together the cementitious crumbles on this street, the lime breaks from the shale, the shells from their marl and clay. On trap streets the rules of gravity bend, curve to the mountain or fight it, dog leg the impossible angle, ribbon the gulley, shimmer from heat, unspool. Cliff walk, some miracle mile meant only for goats, a meander of cloven hooves, a stitching of strip mines, red earth or white, ground that, once spotted, we call disturbed.
Tomorrow is Amma’s seventieth birthday, and I’m wondering what to buy her. She’s told me that the only thing she wants from her children is a new toilet seat, a pair of sensible black shoes, or a replacement floormat for her decade-old Honda Civic. None of these gifts seem particularly appropriate to such a consequential birthday, but then again, Amma has always been practical. When she tells the story of her arranged marriage to my father at nineteen, a decade younger than this man she had only met once before, she recalls bringing a griddle and leaving behind stamp albums as she embarked upon a permanent journey from her home in Coimbatore, South India, to Northern Virginia.
If I had kept a journal in the early fifties, when I was new in New York, I would have marked the day on which I saw the basalt bowl in a store window in Greenwich Village. It was small, and had an in-curling rim and the finest matte black finish. It cost fifteen dollars, almost half my monthly salary, so I got back on the subway and went home. I could not get the thing out of my mind. I desired it. “Beauty,” Stendhal said, “is the promise of happiness.” There was the Saturday I took the subway to the Village, but my bowl was gone.
It might have been twenty years later when I could afford the large basalt platter with a rim that flattens outward. It was a handsome piece, but it did not redeem the thwarted love for that first small black bowl.
I remember the first time I saw a vagina on the white pitched walls of an art museum— Columbus, Ohio, mid-afternoon. I was five, maybe six, maybe a few months shy of my grandmother’s cremation, the day after my goldfish, Rosie, jumped down the disposal and my mother ushered me from the kitchen before she turned it on. I remember the curve of my little neck upwards, that lush flesh on display, all swollen and pink. I remember closing my lips to the awe that overcame me, my mother finding my hand to lead me toward the wing of still-lifes, all those porcelain bowls filled with perfect fruit. I’ve studied the metaphors of this womanhood, learned the verses of ‘lady-like’, but I can’t stop staring at the memory. I remember how unnamable was the feeling of the rope that hung the disc swing from my neighbor’s walnut tree as it caught between my legs, the pleasure in that pressure before dinner. I remember lying on the shag green carpet of my bedroom, two days before my bat mitzvah, bleeding onto the towel I’d placed beneath me, the red dress I’d wear at the celebration hung from the door almost as bright a shade as this rite of passage, the first time I realized that most deadly weapons have once been covered in blood.
I’m frightened of everything. I walk around with my abnormal body. I haven’t learned to accept it yet, this body that bulges in every direction. Now I have two round lumps jutting out of my chest, and shrubbery growing in my armpits and between my legs. And then there’s the fear that’s plunged itself deep inside me.
Two Men and a Truck are here to haul our
piano away to a nice woman’s house, who’s agreed to move it to own it, so her children can learn to play. An hour
early, two men in the truck pass a pipe
while on my open porch I read the sports page. I see ribbons of smoke peel
from the open truck window. The ripe