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Read more essays
"Images Of Eden"
by Quail Dawning
I am eleven years old. My father takes my brother and me on a road trip
tour of the southwest. It is the first time I have ever seen the desert.
Compulsively, I send postcards home and collect cactus flowers to press
into my journal. At Four Corners, an old Indian woman with squinting eyes
and frail hands sells me a set of rose quartz bear jewelry and tells us
that it is unusual for the flowers to bloom so much; it is a season of uncommon
I knew it would be our last night on the road trip. We stopped in a
KOA Campground in Nevada and my father helped some tourists from Boston
put up their tent. Though we had been gone barely a week, it felt like an
eternity. I stared at the landscape until the light failed, fighting back
tears of disappointment. The wanderlust in my gypsy blood had been undeniably
awakened. I longed for the immense mystery and beautiful vastness of the
world. When my father at last clapped a leathered hand on my shoulder and
told me to climb into the tent, I wept, but hid my tears from him, bitterly
wishing I was a boy and did not have to cry. For some time I lie on my back
in the tent, imagining the stars, hating my sore, budding breasts that pressed
unwelcome into my life like the hot pink prickly pear blossoms I had crushed
between the organized pages of my journal.
When I slept, I dreamed: I had gotten my first period. It was my mother's
wedding day. I was dressed in red. A woman with a crescent moon painted
on her forehead gave me jewelry made from garnet and carnelian and kissed
my mouth. When I woke at dawn, I went outside, squatted in the red earth,
and pounded the ground with my fists, never wanting to grow up, never wanting
to be a woman. A weak woman.
I wake at 3:30 p.m. lying on a futon, on the living room floor of a
man I have never met who is in jail and simultaneously dying of AIDS. Next
to me, sleeping, tousled and still shirtless: someone who is slowly becoming
a friend, whom I met for the first time two years ago. He is the first man
who I ever consensually slept with, at wide-eyed seventeen, in a tent beneath
a clear, moonless summer sky.
The light slanted in through the leaves of the pear tree outside, filling
the living room with a shifting golden glow, illuminating the collection
of masks on the walls. I had dreamt I was pregnant with twins. The man next
to me stirred, his dark blue eyes flickered open. He performed the instantaneous,
groggy rituals of morning (the-world-is-too-bright blink, paired with the
ever-present licking of the sleepy lips) and said: "Are you all right?"
In my dream, I had lived up to the Spanish word for pregnancy: embarrassado.
Humiliated, my belly huge and overpowering, I swayed and staggered in and
out of doorways, lumbering, an ashamed giantess, heavy with the impending
threat of two identical offspring. The twins, dual motifs to the art of
my detached, willing sexuality. I wonder, massaging a stiff neck, if the
awkward kiss my bedfellow and I endured at dawn had anything to do with
this intense warning of casual sensuality.
At 5:00 p.m., I am staggering, chest-deep in the rushing current of
the Willamette River, attempting to reach a flourishing, verdant island
embraced by dark arms of swift-moving, toxic water. Jeans cling to legs,
bare toes to rocks, and my fingers to his as I momentarily contemplate the
consequences of reckless abandon and renewed passion taking place in a hidden
glen somewhere beyond the reedy shores of the island, barely within reach.
The sun was a shock to my eyes upon exiting the house my friend was
housesitting. Climbing over the fence, I was instantaneously afraid of my
clumsiness, and moments later, realizing I have completely, lazily lost
track of my moon cycle, I recognized for the first time that I have always
blamed unwanted pregnancies on clumsiness, clumsiness on the part of an
irresponsible woman, a woman entangled in sin or circumstance. A weak woman.
I have always been clumsy. I have never wanted children. I wonder how
the two will overlap.
In June of 2001, engrossed in the first days of another desert road
trip and my first pregnancy scare, I found myself desperately sniffing a
pennyroyal bouquet and praying to the Goddess for the first time in years.
Shaking as we passed evergreens and a road-killed fawn, my period a week
and a half late, I clenched my teeth and begged: "I am only eighteen,
only eighteen. Too young, too stupid, I am sorry, I am sorry, I am so fucking
Abruptly, in the middle of the desert beneath a huge white moon, I bled.
I sat and stared at the faintly-illuminated womanly curves of the Nevada
mountains for an hour, alone, everyone within ten miles fast asleep. In
that moment, with the blood evacuating my inhospitable womb, it was the
first time I had ever wanted a child.
I remember distinctly upon my return, my lover Aspen, when he still
knew nothing of the pregnancy, saying: "I love how clumsy you are.
At 6:00 p.m., we are in the kitchen, my jeans still soaked from river
water. I think of strip clubs, a couple of damp dollars crumpled in my pockets.
I think of wet t-shirt contests, my nipples perky beneath my black tank
top. He tells me I smell like cigarettes, and I kiss him again, paying for
his words, then compare the lines in our palms. (There was a time, albeit
brief, when I believed we were destined for each other.) They do not match:
his are symmetrical and simple, punctuated in all the right places with
smooth, aesthetic whorls and curlicues. Mine have more lines than I have
ever seen on a hand. They are electric. Like fireworks, starry patterns
of multiple lines meeting at a junction of destiny bursting from my heart
line. I have read palms before, but never my own.
My menarche was terrible; an unavoidable, secret humiliation in exchange
for the seemingly worthless boon of fertility. I vividly remember, two weeks
before my fourteenth birthday, ladling lemonade at my mother's August wedding,
wearing a bulky maroon lace dress, my hair a rat's nest with unusual humidity
and my face shiny with oil and sweat, a borrowed cloth pad snapped into
my panties, wedged between my skinny legs. I barely bled at all, but it
was enough for me to know I had finally gotten my period, enough for me
to feel the eerie righteousness of an unrequested prophecy come true.
My mother had wanted another child, but was afraid she was too close
to menopause to have one. As my mother and stepfather kissed in the circle
of well wishers, I winced at a uterine cramp as I took a handful of rice
into my sweaty palm from the basket that was cycling around. Holding it,
clenching it in my hand, I thought to myself: "I am bleeding needlessly.
I want no children. What fertility I have, let it pass to my mother instead."
She conceived on their honeymoon, and my sister was born.
At 7:00 p.m., my friend and I go out for dinner. I feel strangely inadequate
in the boring mating ritual of high heels and fluffed hair. I swore myself
as a priestess years ago, promising myself to myself, to magic, and to the
Goddess first and foremost. Sex, it seemed, would be sacred. Graceful. Considered.
So far in my life, it has not been: irresponsible, unemotional grapplings
with biological impulse have led mostly to obsession, betrayal, and miscommunication.
Somehow, I want this to be a ritual, this flirtation: something precious
and secret. I wonder if he just wants to get laid.
When Amelina was a week old, I carried her the four hazardous blocks
to the natural food store, afraid of injuring her soft skull, somehow crushing
one of her fat, weak arms against my chest. In the store, a woman in the
produce section asked me how breast-feeding was going. Amelina was heavy
in my arms, smelling of saffron, salt, and honey, and I pretended she was
my baby and said it was going fine.
At 8:30 p.m., we pull up in front of my mother's house. My friend and
I engage in the customary moment-before-the-kiss, until I hear Amelina call
my name. Looking through the car window I see her standing in the darkened
garden, arms at her sides, wearing a dark red dress, her mouth bent and
eyes accusing. I feel a surge of love run through my cactus-blossom breasts
and spark across my palms. I get out of the car and go to her, my sister,
my flesh and blood. She throws her arms around my fertile hips and laughs
into my belly.
I have oft been spoken to by serpents: eager for an escape from my simplistic,
holy life as a woman alone, I take them to my wrists and let them smell
my fingertips with their swift red tongues. Naked, I do not hear any request
from them that I cover myself with grape leaves for the effect of modesty;
this comes later; the artist feels ashamed after the consummation, and attempts
to cover me with a thin sheet, with denial, with an excuse. But before,
before: they take a brief detour to slide silkily around and around my bare
legs, then they continue onward, and I am left sitting in the crotch of
the apple tree, eating unripe fruit until my belly cramps.
At 4:00 a.m. I am still awake, my sleeping schedule thrown off by the
events of last night. Amelina's favorite animal is the bear, she told me,
as I read her to sleep earlier tonight. I realize I have bled now for seven
years, and I resolve that the next lover I take will not be afraid of my
starry palms and bleeding womb. I resolve that when I bleed next, I will
wrap garnets around my wrist in place of snakes and eat peaches in place
©2002 Quail Dawning