Book Excerpts, Guest Posts

Not A Place On Any Map

February 27, 2017
leaving

By Alexis Paige

Channelling Harriet the Spy, 1983

I figured Dad’s leaving had something to do with all those times Mom locked herself in the bathroom. Once inside, she would blow like a firecracker, and I would get the spins, the whole house twirling off into darkness. One night not long before he left and while watching The Dukes of Hazzard, Mom sat up as if struck by a thought and then dashed toward the bathroom. Dad rose calmly from his chair in the den and went over to the television and turned up the volume dial. “Go to your room,” he said. “Mom’s going to be okay.” From my room, and with the pillow over my head, I heard only a muffled, underwater soundtrack: Mom hollering, Bo Duke hooting, and Dad begging Mom to open the door. From the crashing sounds, I pictured her like a cartoon dust devil of perfume bottles and bar soap and towels. I could never make out the words that mattered, could never translate the crashes and bangs into a story that made sense.

Years later, I heard a Robert Creeley poem in an undergraduate seminar and read the lines as if in a secret plea to Mom: “Love, if you love me,/ lie next to me./ Be for me, like rain,/ the getting out/ of the tiredness, the fatuousness, the semi-/ lust of intentional indifference./ Be wet/ with a decent happiness.” From those early explosions, I learned only that Mom was fragile and Dad remote on the subject. Eventually, I solved the case of the explosions: they were “episodes,” suicidal threats. Still, I thought if I could give her all my smiles and energy and cheer, that somehow Mom would get happy, that she would be drenched in it.

Toward the end of the year that Dad left, Mom, the baby, the dog, and I all moved up to a place in Moon Valley, then just a dusty outcrop of Phoenix proper with nubby hills and cactus scrub. Mom started night school, which meant Josh and I stayed late at the babysitter’s, where we got to watch Wheel of Fortune and eat peanut butter sandwiches for dinner. Those sandwiches filled me with enormous relief and comfort, as did the game-show ditties. Mom took classes through the fall and winter, often pulling into the babysitter’s driveway after dark. On those nights, her exhaustion was my ally—her Estée Lauder dialed down to a whisper. With the car purring quietly and the baby sleeping in the backseat, we rarely spoke on the rides home through the dark canyons that lay beyond the city lights. Instead of playing detective with Mom’s mood, I might pump the window open and take furtive sips of the cool canyon air. I might scan for the jackrabbits that zigzagged through the darkness or sprinted across the road or dove through our high beams. Dad once said that they were just playing chicken with the car, that jackrabbits were too smart to get hurt. But that didn’t explain why their tufty corpses littered the arroyos, or how some wet, alive panic lodged in my throat every time I saw one dash across the road. Like other wild things, they’re drawn to light and sound, but once too close, they fall under a spell. But it’s no game.

Jackrabbits jump in front of cars for no good reason.

The Plath Talking, 2001

Rome was a twenty-four hour blur: the dusty Colosseum, Via Veneto, the Trevi fountain and a forgotten wish.

Instead of exploring the Vatican, I crossed my legs tightly in a police station, trying to staunch the image of their forced uncrossing in a smelly apartment a few nights before in Florence. Instead of slugging grappa with my friends and the too-celebratory old men in their row on the train to Rome, I sat on my own. I watched two women dressed all in black—probably mother and daughter—stow their luggage, then sit, and then hold hands. I put on my sunglasses and let my head fall upon the window.

I had not been to sleep, had been too tired to apply lipstick, and once the train lurched from the Santa Maria Novella station, and the cool glass kissed my cheek, I began to cry. I let fat tears roll down my face and neck and soak into my t-shirt like a bib. On the next day, I would take the same train back and file a report, but for this day, I would ride away through the flaxen countryside and wonder what to tell my father.

What is a good Catholic, anyway, I wanted to ask—a man who lies to get a girl back to his apartment? A woman who gets on the back of his scooter willingly?

Tell me, Daddy, something cool and camphor. Tell me that I am not a whore.

Que es un crimen, he said, in the Spanish we shared—how good I looked in red. Too good, he said.

I look so happy in the photograph at the Piazza Republica taken hours before, my tanned arm hooked around my girlfriend’s tiny waist.

Too happy.

Baggage Claim, 2016

I bought the suitcase in a train station in Milan, just before Florence, and before everything that came after. When I cut my trip short, the suitcase held all of the items that had been in the man’s apartment, plus all of the items from the trip that would forever trail to all of the things that changed me in that apartment—to a permanent disembodiment. The arrest report that never went anywhere, “what I was wearing”…  I bought it in a pinch when my backpack started to unravel, and since the suitcase cost a small fortune in ill-prepared tourist tax, I’ve kept it now for fifteen years. I brought it with me when I moved from west coast to east, then to Texas, then back east again. It’s just a bag, I’ve always told myself. I’m nothing if not practical, and it still works okay. But it weighs a ton, it takes up too much space, the wheels are wonky, and of course, it’s not just a bag. There are new, lighter models with twirly wheels and no memories. So this morning, I rolled it out to the end of our driveway and left it next to the road. I marked it FREE because it’s already cost so much. If I had known how good it would feel to put old luggage out on the curb, I would have done it years ago. But some learning is slow. If there’s something you need to let go of, throw away, or put out for someone else, I hope you can. Holding onto it is harder.

Alexis Paige’s work appears in multiple journals and anthologies, including Hippocampus, Fourth Genre, The Pinch, The Rumpus, Pithead Chapel, and Brevity, where she is an Assistant Editor. Her essay,’​The Right to Remain,​’​ was named a notable in the 2016 Best American Essays anthology, was featured on Longform, and nominated for a Pushcart Prize. ​Her first book, Not A Place on Any Map, a collection of lyric essays about the emotional terrain of trauma, won the 2016 Vine Leaves Press Vignette Collection Award​ and was published in December of 2016. She writes from a converted farmhouse pantry in rural Vermont, where she lives with her husband, and their two dogs, Jazz and George. Visit Alexis online: alexispaigewrites.com

 

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