Who was that girl who fell out of a window?
I’m going to tell you about the time I was raped but don’t remember it. One morning I woke, face down in my bed, naked and hurting. I didn’t hurt completely, only in parts, and those parts were a fugue of pain. Perhaps this was the one time drinking saved me—it erased the memory of a man trying to fill vacant spaces without my permission. Just to be clear, this isn’t a story about rape—it’s about drinking. The rape, the theft of me, was incidental, one of many war wounds endured during a lifetime of self-destruction. But here’s the thing about drinking—you make the decision to drink over and over again every time you look at your life, the position you’re in and who put you there, and it all leads back to you. Each and every problem, every failure, and disappointment, and you think to yourself maybe if you just drink it’ll get better. You drink out of vases and mason jars because you’re not at all particular. You drink because you believe that the composition of tomorrow will no longer resemble today—how could it? How could the days be this cruel and uninviting? But it never does get better and that’s okay because you’ve become used to this fiction and the lies that comfort you. Pull on your pants and tuck in your shirt. Scrub your hair clean; it cringes like cellophane. The morning after I was raped I washed my hands without soap and stood in the shower with my clothes on. It’s important that I not fall apart, that I not be casket and cargo. Heal and heel, everyone told me in various stages of my life.
When we fuck we’re taught to moan. I don’t remember the rape, but I likely did what I’d been programmed to do—excise my sadness and yield to false pleasure. I allowed him to strut around and treat my home as if it were his living room. I probably allowed my body to articulate. Fine, fine. Perhaps I mopped up the mess and bleached the stained while I was unable to form memory. The quiet was likely strained. That morning I woke I remembered the lights were still on. The sky was a sad child’s watercolor painting. I continued to clean the rot from the room; I churned out silences.
[But I’m getting ahead of myself. How do I explain that I exist in the space between past and present tense? I have to remind myself that I don’t walk in straight lines. Outside my window men wear white masks as they cut out the insides of dead trees. I tremble when they fall. The trees, not the men.]
Let me tell you about the first time I took a drink, and by take I mean steal—I grabbed a bottle of wine from the bodega and ran out into the street. In the alley Ellie rolled her eyes hard; you could see the whites when she said you couldn’t just get a six-pack. Now we have to worry about opening this shit? This isn’t Dynasty. We’re not white people on TV. Watch me twist off the cap and swallow oceans. The bottle saidBoone’s and the wine was pale and cotton candy, and we were twelve falling out of swings in the park getting sick on sweet. Ellie smacked her head on the pavement and bled, but it was okay because her wounds were the kind that healed. Mine would keep on hurting, but the alcohol always rubbed it away. The first time I drank I wouldn’t let Ellie see my eyes. The last time I drank I refused to witness my father shaking his head at the sight of me.All those years ago I knew it was you who was stealing from the store. Can someone come and remove my eyes? I said words, but they didn’t mean much and my father kept repeating it’s what you’ve done. In the time between twelve and now, I seem to have lost everyone. They called me wild. They called me a child. The sun shone, but I only felt storms. It was as if I had been born exceeded and pursued.
We are the cracks we fall through. Rewind the tape, projectionist.
When I was small I took care of a woman named Sylvia. She was rancid, bruised, and made a feast of picking out sardines from wartime tins. Sylvia was 50 but looked 70 and lived a rationed life. This was the year before a girl named Felicia in our building hurled herself out of a window. I was nine and taking care of things. I brought Sylvia a brick of cheddar and she cut it into cubes. She told me she once dated a game show host who asked her trick questions. In order to get married she had to make it to the bonus round, and when she didn’t the game show host made a buzzing sound with his mouth, put on his pants and walked out the door. That was thirty years ago. Sylvia pointed to a pair of socks duct-taped to the refrigerator. Those were his, she said. What was the trick question, I asked. What cards had she needed to stay in the game? Shaking her head, Sylvia said she couldn’t remember. Sylvia didn’t have nails on her fingers, only bandaids to protect the places where nails had been. Punishment, she told me and I was confused. Sometimes I take a match to the inside of my elbows, she said, and this I understood. She kept a burn pile in the tub, but she wasn’t worried. Police only came to our building when they carried bodies away. Sylvia didn’t have blankets or a bed and when I came one morning with clean sheets she tossed them in the burn pile. I can’t have you coming in here and telling me what you think I need and do not need. I chewed the warmed cubes of cheese and Sylvia aggressively rubbed her chin until it rained skin. I noticed since my last visit that she’d removed all the doors. Sylvia had the kind of pills in orange bottles that made you pass out if you were lucky to have made it midway through. What will you do when I’m gone? Who’s next on your list to save? Keep me company for a little while, little bird. Sylvia emptied the bottle. Before you leave add me to the burn pile, she said. Love will do you no good.
When I was sixteen I fantasized about touching myself, of touching others, of being touched by others. I wadded a blanket between my legs and wiggled away to Top 40 music. At school, Brillo pads soared over my head in band class, but I kept on playing. A boy followed me home in a red Rabbit convertible and expressed his sympathies. Get in, he said, and I did, and I’ve never since been in a fast car with a boy. I could tell he didn’t want to be seen with me because he took the long way home. When we arrived at my house, two girls were playing Double Dutch on the street and they looked over at me—Ava got a ride? Ava?—and the boy in the Rabbit said this was a one-time offer, that come Monday he had to return to being the boy who threw Brillo pads over my head while I played sad songs on the oboe. Don’t act like you’re breaking, he said. You’re not broken. That feeling of forlorn multiplied. Before he took off he said I’m gay living in Long Island, Ava. Paper covers rock. In ten years time, the boy will become a married man who parks his red Rabbit in a mall garage and puts a gun inside of his mouth and pulls the trigger. In the passenger seat, a small child cries because her father is red like the car he drives but neither move.
Three years after the rape I am sober, driving through Oregon. My friend points to a woman standing alongside the road.She’s a prostitute. How can you tell? We resemble the woman only we have better clothing. Look at her t-shirt, my friend says. I do. It reads: this body will do you good. On the back is a price list with the caveat: Negotiable. I turn the car around and pull up. The woman leans half of her body into the passenger side and my friend is altered. Honey, the woman says. I can hold you like a purse. My friend says are we talking Celine or a Kmart special, because there’s a difference. The woman has a delicate laugh when she tells me I have the saddest eyes. She expresses concern for my architecture. I drive away and my friend says, thank god we turned out all right. My friend is downright grisly. A month later I will see an image on the TV screen, a flash of torso covered by a shirt burning pink. The N from Negotiable excised along with the rest of the woman’s body. I think about purses full and empty. Tears of joy and sorrow appear the same, and only chemistry can distinguish the two.
You think you’re grown because you cross your legs like some damn woman? My father was light-skinned, mean, and danced to elevator music. You think you’re grown because you know when to cross and uncross your legs? I laughed because if liquor wasn’t going to end this pregnancy, I sure would. I was twenty-five then and now my father wonders if I’ll have children. Two years ago he had a car accident and lost his arms and his poodle, Myrtle. I try to remember not to use colloquial expressions around my father. I don’t ask if he needs a hand. Instead, I remember how he wept when he lost Myrtle and I don’t even have the hands to wipe away my fucking tears. I wrapped a scarf around his neck so his shirt wouldn’t get wet from all the crying. In the middle of his grief, my father reminded me that he knew how much booze I’d stolen from the store. That was just like him—giving me empty purse hugs.
When I relapsed (again), I stumbled outside of a bar to see a sign that read: please respect our neighbors. I met a friend for coffee in a bar and when I arrived early she still gave me the “you’re late” look. Many of my friends walked pigeon-toed. When did the ability to hold your drink make you such a fucking Puritan? I can hold my drink—I just have a problem letting it go.
On the news, I see a report about the prostitute in Oregon. Her killer mailed her parts to the people she used to know. The bones were wiped clean and smooth and smelled like coconut as if they’d been on vacation. At a party I tell a bunch of strangers about this, the limbs shipped without a return address. I follow it with a joke. What’s the difference between an alcoholic and a rape victim—both have leftover pie in the fridge? The alcoholic forgets the pie exists and the rape victim tries to remember the pie as a list of unmolested ingredients. The joke doesn’t come off and the host pulls me aside and says, that’s the difference between you and you. The host asks me to leave. She’s polite and her face is arranged well and I take my coat and throw it down a flight of stairs. Where’s the burn pile when you need it? I go home and bake a pie but don’t eat it. That’s the difference between you and me.
A pocket full of posies, Ashes! Ashes! We all fall down. I cut bangs and everyone wondered: what are you going through? Maybe Ava hasn’t found religion? Oh dear god, maybe she has and that’s the problem. My outsides finally matched my insides: barbed. Listen, lady. I don’t want to judge, but you’ve come in here twice a day for the past two weeks. No one drinks that much, to which you responded, if you don’t want to judge—don’t. I ate salads to balance out the wine because I thought this was the right thing to do. This was the year I had trouble remembering.
That car I had in Oregon? Yeah, that’s history, past tense, better left forgotten. Besides, I don’t mind walking. When I’m drunk I forget about personal space and I give everyone full-purse hugs. I’m in a place where music doesn’t exist, but I’m still singing. My father calls me and asks what would I have named the child had I had it? Fuck, pop. I don’t want to go there. He presses. I need to know, he says. What would you have named it? I roll over in bed. I don’t know. Hung over? Sleepy? My father sighs. One day all of this will cease being funny to you.
Really, pop? When was I ever smiling? My father says to someone in the room, put the phone down. I don’t want her voice. When I hear the dial tone I feel nothing if not numb. We’ve become aware of the parts of ourselves that are missing. I remember the first day he dropped me off at school. Get good grades and close your legs were his cauterizing tools. He turned his back to me then and walked to the car, and I remember him becoming smaller and smaller until he fell out of the frame. My book bag weighed heavy while everyone else carried a single binder—I was forever creating my own burden. And the first time I drank it felt as if someone had crept up behind me in the park where I messed around with my friend Ellie, and this person leaned in closer than I expected him to and said, here, let me take that. Let me carry this for you.
If you ask me what drinking is like, I’d tell you that it’s someone removing a weight from your body and replacing it with a full-purse hug.
When my father calls again he talks about cancer, about a treatment that will lance away the disease. How do you feel? Mercy, he says. I’m getting by. And you, he asks. I’m not getting by, pop. I don’t have your treatment or your desire for mercy. I’ve been stretching my sadness over me my entire life. Isn’t that how it’s always been, Ava? Naveen, I say. My father asks me what I’m talking about. The child had I had it. I would’ve named him Naveen. I could feel my father nodding. I am his arm, aching to close the phone. I am his arm cupping my belly, frightened of me spilling over. The air is brittle and the sky cloaks me in braille. When my father dies, they spatula earth on his face and I smooth the dirt and clean the corners. When my father dies, everyone apologizes for my loss. They pigeon-toe their way into my home with baskets of fruit shaped like trees, and I let it all rot and cover it with a sheet and set the bereavement aflame. I weave through a string of headlights and I sit down in a bar and order a glass of wine and the man who will rape me will order me another, and another, and another, and I will tumble home into the dark and make no memory. But I will make pies I will not eat. I will shower covered in cloth. I will wash with no soap. I will live without mercy. I will drink from glasses that look like beautiful coffins. I will gather my purses and call out Sylvia’s name when I hurl them, one by one, out of an open window while a woman across the way sings Chinese arias. I will rip crossword puzzles out of papers and ferret out the clues. I will buy Pampers for the child I’ll never have and wonder how to use them. I will practice on dolls like Big Michelle. I will mother. I will try to rewind and be back in that car, pulling the prostitute all the way in and hug her and hug her with my father’s arms. I will press glitter under my too-sad, charcoal eyes and say I cry gold tears. I will purchase a cage filled with rabbits and I will color them red. I will call everyone I know and leave voicemails.
Imagine if that girl we thought fell out of a window, didn’t? What if she had survived and ran away? What if there was no jump or fall at all—perhaps it was a story we invented and the truth emerged in our retelling. What if the girl named Felicia grew into a woman who saw what the whole shape of her life had become now that she survived her fall and your memory? What would you say then? Would your life have been different? Would you have not gone to that party, Luz? Would you have resisted being a thief of someone else’s story, Sakima? Would you have let your mother live, Millie? Would you have been the black boy born blue and kept on breathing, Marlon? Would you have been a different man, Kevin, had Nadia lived and held your mother close against all the furs she burned? Would you have been the woman who grew up as #60 or traveled to California to watch Alice die because you tried playing dead as a child, but the story for you didn’t take? Would you have become the woman who finally did it? Would you have left your sweaters, kitten, friend and father, behind? What would’ve happened if the girl who was a story who was a myth who was a fiction who was a woman who emerged from the salt, pristine and broken because all of you had become a terrible, trembling blue ruin?
The last time I drank for good was when a friend folded my hands in hers and said, you’re not Ava. You’re Felicia. We’re all a variation of the same girl, the girl who fell out of the window, but we survived it. We’re still here, Ava. We’re living.