Gray Matter

by Alexis Wiggins


Here’s an exercise: make a list of words and phrases that sum up your life. Each phrase can be no longer than three words, and you should aim for about forty phrases. Try it.

Here’s mine:

Jumping in leaves. Bammie’s pink applesauce. Snow days. Sour patch kids. Dad singing Beatles. 1986 World Series. Cold January mornings. Loneliness. Our two cats. Mom’s jewelry box. Chasing bunnies. Books. A new brother. Golf lessons. Guilt. Shrimp cocktail. Broken wine glasses. Jimmy-covered black-raspberry ice cream. Weekends in Gloucester. Body surfing. Strep throat. August thunder storms. Hard pretzels. Boys. Mixed tapes. La Herradura summer. Cups of tea. Wiggins dorm. Ani DiFranco. First heartbreak. My grandparents dancing. Madrid semester abroad. Diego. Hong Kong noodles. Transatlantic flights. Un buen Rioja.

What’s hard about it, though, is all the things you have to leave off the list. Like the first time your mom spanked you when you were looking over a stairwell railing and could have fallen and died. Or the birthday when Bammie gave you a suitcase full of little wrapped presents. Or when Bampie would take you to diners for breakfast at 7 a.m. and buy you Trident fruit gum after. Or your first kiss. Or your first lay. Or the time your stepfather fell down the stairs and you asked if he was OK and he just screamed at you. Or when Laney’s mother died. Or when your mom almost did. Or the day you got married and were so pretty and happy and dying of heat because it was 105 that day, and your cousin even fainted just after the ceremony, right as she reached the church door.

The truth is, once you start, you could go on an on. You could tell it all if you could. But you can’t. That’s the fun of it, really: choosing the right forty phrases, the forty points that can be connected together to create a You, a holey version of you, for sure, but we can tell it’s you even if it’s just a bunch of dots. Like a Lichtenstein.

If you actually had to tell stories, didn’t rely on mere three-word phrases and striking images, then you would probably readjust. You’d probably not elaborate on jumping in leaves, for example, since we all pretty much know how that goes: your mom rakes a big pile together, you jump in it, you laugh, your mom takes a picture, and three days later you have poison ivy. No, you’d probably tell different stories about the moments that stand out like pins on a map, the times that cut through your brain in a way so as to sear a memory there, a message, like the little red flags you can put on an email to remind you that it’s important, a plea to your brain: keep this one fresh. It’s part of Who I Am. These most-important moments, the defining ones, are the ones you’d tell about, weaving together in some kind of pastiche (a word that always reminds me of pistachios), to create a cohesive tale. The story of your life. No longer holey dots. More like those coloring books that Bammie used to get you that had little dots of color inside the outlines, and when you wiped a wet brush over them, they’d smear – magically – into just the right color. That’d be you: a smeary, bleeding wet figure as bright and abstract as a sunset’s reflection on the water. And you’d be glad that you were able to tell it all.

But you can’t really tell it all; writing is about whittling down, about embers and nuggets. Like pomegranate seeds strung together to make a beautiful, bloody necklace. So you try to extract those seeds with surgeon-like precision, careful to find the right ones, the perfect memories and anecdotes that, together, add up to a kind of whole. And if you squint, or step far enough away from the picture, you can see how those bits and pieces blur together into a deliriously rich whole; it’s all there, all of you, if you can just squint and imagine.

* * *

I have two memories of my mother and father together, and both are of fighting. In the first, I am three years old and it’s nighttime. Something has woken me from a sweaty sleep and I shuffle to the kitchen in bare feet, towards the crack of light below the closed kitchen door. My parents voice swirl higher and higher, like classical music, coming close to a breaking point. I swing open the door and in that instant, something loud smashes at my feet. A wineglass. My mother rushes over, sorry, so sorry, and my father stares bewildered, already distant from us, in a red flannel shirt. He crosses his arms and watches as my mom heaves me up into her fierce arms and carries me back to bed, trying to stop me from crying.

In the second memory, I walk into my parents’ bedroom and my father has my mother pinned down on the bed, his palms pressing into her shoulders, and he is screaming in her face. Literally, right into her face. He’s screaming, “You’re CRAZY!” He may have said it once or several times. I don’t know. I just remember him emphasizing that word, “crazy,” like it was the ugliest thing in the world.

I pretty much grew up without a father. Friends who had never been through a divorce would constantly ask me if I missed my dad. “You can’t miss what you never had,” was the glib response I came up with sometime around high school. And it was partially true. I didn’t miss him. The only memories I had of him before the divorce were of my parents’ fights, and the memories afterward blur together into a stream of weekend visits and Red Sox games.

My parents’ got divorced in 1980, before the VCR. But we had this videodisc machine that you could insert these giant, plastic records into and they would play a movie. Halfway through the movie, just like a record, you’d have to slide the disc out into the plastic case and flip it, slide it back in. One of the movies we had was Kramer vs. Kramer, which my mother had bought for me to help me through the divorce. She had also bought me a book called It’s Not Your Fault a black-and-white picture book about a kid whose parents get divorced and how the kid thinks it was his fault. She meant well, and I’m sure it was a weight off her conscience, but the book only gave me ideas. I had never imagined it was my fault, couldn’t have even conceived such a thing at three-and-a-half. But now I had the perfect excuse for acting up. If I was being especially bratty or wanted a particular Transformer and my mom said it was too expensive, or I didn’t feel like taking my clothes off the floor, I now had a reason: I felt bad. I missed Dad. Was the divorce my fault?

“Of course not, honey,” my mom would cry. Her face would crumple into a maze of lines. Worry lines. “This is between your daddy and me.” And she’d take me up in her arms and let me put my head against her neck and then she’d buy me the robot. It was so easy. And then sometimes when I had gone too far and acted up badly, talking back or pushing her buttons, I’d get a smack. Sometimes it was on the ass, sometimes on the cheek. Once she hit me with my science textbook, which made a terrible sound but didn’t hurt at all, and I teased her, “That didn’t hurt at all.” And she threatened to do it until it did, but she was already smiling. And a few times she’d grab me by the throat, just under my chin, like a bird of prey and seethe at me through clenched teeth. “Stop being a little bitch,” she’d say. And I’d cry. And she’d apologize. And I’d hug her. And this was the beginning of the rest of our lives as mother and daughter, sans father. We hardly even missed him.

When I was nearly five, my mom was twenty-nine, single, and broke. We moved in with my mom’s older sister, Carolyn, and her husband Richie. They lived in a small apartment in Brookline, MA. My mother ordered a silver dog tag for me that read:

My name is Alexis Shaak. I live at 4 Auburn Court, Brookline. Phone: 555 1212. If lost, please return.

She put a silver chain through the dog tag and strung it around my neck. “Where do you live?” she asked a hundred thousand times.

“Four Auburn Court,” I replied.

“That’s my girl.”

My mother was proud that I was such an independent daughter, and I was happy to be given so many privileges. Every day after school during my first year of kindergarten and first grade, my mom would make sure a taxi was waiting for me at the cul-de-sac entrance of Pierce Elementary School. I would get into the back of the car, which smelled of already-chewed mint gum, and the cabbie would take me home, a mile’s walk. I could have easily done it on my own, but my mother thought the cab was safer. I’d hand the cabbie a wad of cash, slam the door shut, and race up the stairs to our apartment. I had to open about seven locks before I could get in, but then I’d be home. Just me and the cats, all afternoon, until first my mom came, then uncle Richie, a gas station attendant, then my aunt Carolyn, a doctor in her residency.

I didn’t question why we lived there, why my doctor aunt had married a gas station attendant, or where my father was. I was too busy exploring the neighborhood, deciding whether or not to eat the berries off the bush out front (I didn’t), whether or not to eat the leaves sprouting out of the ground around the trees in the courtyard, which a neighbor girl swore were mint (I did, and they were), and filling my afternoons with sunlight, loneliness, water balloons, coloring books, and my new Madonna record, which I made up a sexy dance to.

It was like anyone else’s childhood, really: my imagination on steroids, while adults around me picked up the pieces of their mistakes.

My mother once confessed to me how she tried to take her own life, how on vacation with my father in Cancun she swallowed all these pills before going snorkeling. She planned to drown out there, but she didn’t. Instead, she saw the most beautiful fish she’d ever seen, so beautiful that she didn’t want to go back to land, to my father. But she did, and by the way she told the story, I think she felt special or something – magical, almost – for surviving. Like she had a secret, one I didn’t care to know.

How was I to know that there would be an end to all of it? I think we all know the time – as acute as a grapefruit squirt in the eye – when we realize our lives are pathetic, not halcyon or sweet or special at all. When we see our parents for who they are – sad grown-ups who had imagined something very different: Love. Stability. A mortgage and a Volvo. Sexual satisfaction. 2.2 children loving and hugging them with 4. 4 arms. What they got was something else altogether. It’s horrible to see your mother for who she is when you’re six years old. You know there’s no getting out for years and years. And years.

In my memory, the bad always mixes inextricably with the good, like one of those swirly, soft-serve ice creams: my mother’s love and her spankings; my father’s absence and his birthday cards every year; suffocating loneliness and adults always around; tears and dirty faces, my favorite first-grade teacher and homework; a new toy and my mother’s depression; my bike accident and my mother’s love.

And when you are finally old enough to see it for what it is – your life, no more no less – you can suddenly see the pixels, see the spaces in between the dots of memory and reminiscence. See the gray matter between them, matter that might have been filled with love, or happiness, or wholeness, or an equation: 1 parent + 1 parent = 2.2 children + chocolate lab = total American bliss.

But if I’m talking sums, then this is the most important one: what you’ve experienced + how you process it = Who You Are. Gray matter be damned; I am my memories, whatever dpi they may be. I’m not a sum of all the things that never happened to me; I’m not a negative equation.

It’s better to just step back a few feet, squint a bit, and see pink apple sauce, the fourth-grade talent show, the crush I had on Christian Saulnier, marbles, the smell of my mother’s lipstick before a date, mint growing in a rundown city condominium courtyard...