Traveling Left of Center
“Girl,” my mama had said to me the minute she entered my hospital room, “on the highway of life, you’re always traveling left of center.”
Mama was always saying things like that. She had a phrase for every occasion, and would pronounce them with a certainty that, in my younger days, I accepted as gospel. But that time, I didn’t pay her no mind. I just went on painting my nails “Passionate Purple,” hoping that the sexy polish would catch the doctor’s eye.
I was justifiably proud of my hands, especially since, at that particular time, they were the only part of me that was skinny. A girl’s body sure takes a beating from having a baby. It had taken me at least a year to get my shape back after Robert Nicholas, and it looked like Rebecca Nicole wouldn’t be any kinder to her mama than her big brother had been.
“Just let me touch you. Please—just one touch. The tip of my finger, then. Please, can I touch you with the tip of my finger? Please? Just for a second. Please!”
Begging. Pleading. The voice of desperation. Cassie had heard it so many times before and, in the beginning, in the early days, had found it impossible to ignore. So she would stand there, let them touch her, stroke her face, cut tiny pieces of faded cloth from her shirt, her jeans—once, even a strand of hair from her head, done so quickly that she couldn’t shield her skin from the sharp blade of the scissors. And with each touch, she felt more of herself being taken, being lost…
Cassie was a healer. At least, that was what the people who touched her said. She never touched anyone—just stood there while they approached, hardly daring to breathe for fear they would find a way to take away even the breath from her body. Then, with one or two trembling fingers, these people—these needy, needy people—would tentatively reach out and lightly caress the sleeve of her jacket, the back of her neck, her forehead where every day, new wrinkles scarred their way across the thin skin.
Every time they touched her, Cassie would shiver, as though, molecule by molecule, life-giving heat was being drained from her. But then it passed (it always passed) and she would be warm again—maybe not as warm as she would like to be but then, as her Granny had always reminded her when she complained of the cold, drained feeling that followed a touching, “You have a gift and with a gift comes cost. That’s just the way it is, Cassandra, and you’d better get used to it.”
This is how it should be—
In the morning, I would go into my kitchen, with its golden oak cabinets and white tile counter tops, where I would grind some fine brown coffee beans—a special blend, grown high in the Andes where the air is so sharp it can slice your lungs. When the coffee has finished brewing, I would pour it into a delicate gold-rimmed demitasse, and the steam would rise, rich and fragrant, almost as satisfying as that very first taste.
I would take my cup and one freshly-baked, flaky croissant, and walk out onto the deck. From there, I would see the sun as it fights its way through the pine trees, struggling to reach the sky. The first rays color the darkness orange and red, purple and gold, and as the night is conquered, the sun would emerge victorious.
On the deck, there is one small glass-topped table with wrought iron legs, a wicker rocker with a thick purple-flowered seat cushion, and my easel.
I look at the sky and then at my paint box and colored pencils, waiting on the shelf below the empty canvas. Finally, with slow, deliberate strokes, I begin to sketch my world—the pines, with each needle meticulously placed on each branch and each branch grafted carefully onto the trunk, and the sky: its colors melting and bleeding into each other like a dying harlequin…
Later again, much later, I would rest in my rocking chair, drinking champagne from a delicately etched crystal goblet, watching the stars glitter in the darkening sky… I would stretch my legs out before me, scratched and tired from the afternoon walk, and rest my head on the back of the chair. My fingers are tinted with sunrise colors, the paint permanently stained into my skin from endless mornings spent at my easel, and I can no longer remember the true color of my flesh.
Waiting for Sara
“Mom, it’s Sara.”
Her voice was distorted by the miles of wire separating us—how many miles I could only guess.
“Where are you?”
So many of our conversations began like that, with Sara making contact, and me, desperately trying to keep that contact alive, sending out my love like a rope to bind her to me.
“Things haven’t been goin’ too good here.” Her voice was slurred—drink or drugs, I couldn’t tell.
“Sara.” My voice sharpened with worry. “Tell me where you are. Are you okay?”
“Cool, Ma.” Her voice faded away, and then came back again. “So what’s happenin’?”
“I’d love to see you, Sara. Tell me where you are, and I’ll come get you. Or give me your number and I’ll call you back.”
The phone company could trace a number, I thought. I’ll tell them it’s an emergency. I’ll tell them we were cut off. We were cut off. Between my daughter and me, there was a chasm deeper than the Great Divide. And every spar I threw across fell to the bottom, the echoes endlessly crashing through my life.