Fraylie and I first met in middle school, and she was one of the familiar faces in the rotating cast of sixty or so of the "smart kids" who all took the same AP classes. Nerds and wannabe writers, we used to trade poems in school. Post high-school graduation, we lost touch and explored different paths to escape our small, suburban town in New Jersey. About a month ago, I was sitting in Neue House on east 25th street and her name happened to cross a conversation: Fraylie Nord. Not an usual name, and I was glad to find her again, and that she is still writing.
From the back seat of my mother’s station wagon, I observed a mountain. The dump rose like a crag of earth woven with dead pine. I could see the branches tangled with bits of tinsel and glitter-crusted orbs. There were enough trees that if somebody told me a family lived inside, that this was their home, I would have understood. I drew a cloud into the frosted window and tucked my knees to my chest.
I was ten years old when my father drove us up Route 1 and into the woods. Beside him, my mother slept, arms crossed over her breasts like a deathbed painting. She was sick again, the third time that year. Her eyelids had thinned to a pale blue, and I wondered if she could see us through her skin.
As we passed Wiscasset, my father switched from Bruce Springsteen to talk radio. A woman discussed how a dead Buddhist monk was believed to have been reincarnated as a newborn Nepalese boy.
I watched my father’s hand rub my mother’s knee cap. I wore two pairs of socks, and the heat in the station wagon felt like breath through a clenched jaw. It was so cold that all the lakes were frozen solid and dotted with tiny, peaked tents.
“Why are they camping out there?” I asked my father. “Aren’t they freezing?”
He didn’t respond for a few minutes. I thought that maybe he hadn’t heard me, or that maybe my question was stupid.
I lay across the back seat, my face buried in a pillow. Then I heard my father say, “They do it out of habit. They can’t not go ice fishing.”
I am seven, and my mother and I are standing in our underwear, dressing for temple. I watch her as she peels her hair from a towel, turns, walks toward the bathroom.
“Mom, I want my butt to jiggle like yours does.” I say, sitting on the bed.
I don’t know why she starts laughing, but she goes at it loudly, her hands pressed together like she’s praying.
“With time Sadie, I promise,” she tells me, her face flush. “Just be patient.”
Before she met my father, my mother lived in Maine during the early seventies. This was right after college, where she had studied mathematics and political science, marched on Washington, developed a fashionable sense of disillusion in our country’s government.
She worked on farms along the coast. I’ve seen the photographs tucked away in her sock drawer. I found a whole stack secured by a rubber band and wrapped in orange tissue paper. My mother in denim overalls and a floral button down, hair spilling in dark ringlets from a straw hat, my mother on a raft with a weather beaten man, my mother asleep in the woods, my mother in a bright kitchen.
I stole the kitchen photograph when I was six years old. She stands by a window and keeps her hands in her pockets. I struggled to understand her expression. It is a knowing, if not accusatory look, the kind she would give my father from the foot of the stairs as he climbed to his office and closed the door. But there was something else, brief glimmers of fear and pride. She resembled an animal as it noticed its place in the kill line.
I am home for spring break. My mother sits on the porch and reads me the crime blotter. She has lost a lot of weight, and her skin has become translucent. There is glee in her voice when she holds up the paper and says, “Sadie, I remember when you square danced with this kid in fourth grade, and now look here, he was picked up after peeing on the liquor store.”
I laugh. “Are you surprised?”
“No,” she says. “He was a terrible dancer. It makes perfect sense.”
When I look back on this, I will remember
the smell of bleach,
my father with the watering can,
grumbling that he can’t keep her plants alive,
the feeling that she could understand us better with her eyes closed
as she folds the newspaper and pulls a ball of lint from my sweater.