On my twentieth birthday, I bought myself an ax.
This was the best gift I got in a decade. Before I saw it, shining on the wall of the hardware store like a lover made from steel and wood, I'd given up completely on the birthday celebration.
On my nineteenth, my mother had kicked me out of the house.
On my eighteenth, I had a party of two people, and after an hour, both claimed allergies, and went home, sneezing.
On my seventeenth, I made myself a chocolate cake, but since I didn't really want to eat it, stirred bug poison in with the mix. It rose beautifully, the best ever, and when I took it out of the oven, a perfect brown dome, I just circled the pan for a few hours, breathing in that warm buttery air. Some ants ate the crumbs on the counter and died.
On my sixteenth, my aunt sent me a beautiful scarlet silk dress, which smelled and felt as delicate as the inside of a wrist. Stroking it in my lap, I sifted through the phone book, finally picking out the name of a woman who lived at an address with 16s in it. Then I mailed the dress to her. Red is not my color.
On my fifteenth, fourteenth, thirteenth, twelfth, and eleventh birthdays, my mother and I went shopping, and each year, by the end, one of us was in tears of frustration because I didn't like anything, and I said I really didn't want anything, except, maybe, a new math workbook. You had to send away for those. They came from a big number barn in the South. My mother shook her head; she refused, flat-out, to buy me math supplies for my birthday, so finally we just put the money in the bank instead.
The year of my tenth birthday was when my father got sick, and that's when I started to quit.
I'd always loved the sound of pianos, so I signed up for lessons and took them for six weeks, and at the end of six weeks we had a recital. I wore a dress and played a minuet and my two hands were doing two different things at the same time and when it was over I drank juice and got hugged and the melody crooned inside my head. I walked my piano teacher to her car, and she smiled at me, proud. The sky clamped down. I lowered my voice: Listen, I said, urgent. You are never, ever to set foot near this house again.
Her eyebrows pulled in, puzzled. Mona? she asked. What?
Thanks, I said. But this is the end of the line.
I told my mother it was too bad, wasn't it, that the one piano teacher was leaving our small town of no opportunity to become a rock star in the big city. Her eyes widened and she picked up the phone and my heart started pounding, but to my huge relief the piano teacher's machine picked up and my mother's message was vague, something like: Good luck and wow! and we wish you all the best.
Three weeks later, they ran into each other at the market. What they talked about, I have no idea.
I took dance class ten times, and on the afternoon of my first leap, donated my ballet shoes to charity. I had one boyfriend and within two months had hardened into a statue in bed. I ran track like a shooting star and shot myself straight out of orbit.
I quit dessert to see if I could do it--of course I could; I quit breathing one evening until my lungs overruled; I quit touching my skin, sleeping with both hands under the pillow. When no one was home, I tied ropes around the piano, so that it would take me thirty minutes with scissors to get back to that minuet. Then I hid all the scissors.
I did not stop knocking on wood, which I did all the time, as a way to seal each quit into roots and bark; listen: I tell the wood--look at what I'm doing here. Mark this down. Notice.
No piano. No dessert. No track. Nothing. I am in love with stopping.
It's a fine art, when you think about it. To quit well requires an intuitive sense of beauty; you have to feel the moment of turn, right when desire makes an appearance, here is the instant to be severed, whack, this is the moment where quitting is ripe as a peach turning sweet on the vine: snap, the cord is cracked, peach falls to the floor, black and silver with flies.
I had one boyfriend. He was distracted most of the time but we stood in his front doorway on a warm summer night and his lips moved over my skin like a string quartet and I could feel that peach ready to shake off the tree.
I quit going to the movies.
I quit my job at the local diner when the chef kept going on and on about what a good runner I'd been.
I quit egg salad.
I quit flipping through atlases.
I'd long quit the idea of living away from home when, on that nineteenth birthday, my mother threw me out of the house. She closed the town tourist office that she owned and ran, came home early, and said: Mona, happy birthday, my present to you is this. Putting her hands on my shoulders, she marched me out the front door, and stood me on the lawn.
I love you, she said, but you are too old to live here.
But I love it here, I said.
Her hair blew around in the air. You're lying, she said, and what's worse is that you don't even know it.
I wasn't sure if she was adamant or just a lot of talk until she rolled my bed into the front hallway. My father, confused, just sidled around the sloppy pillow and comforter, and for two nights, I dreamt in the space where wall nearly met wall. On the second morning, I woke, went to the bathroom, came back, and found the bed was gone again. And the front door was open. My mother stood in the doorway, her back to me, shoulders lifting and lowering from laughter at the sight of it, covers rumpled, standing in the middle of the front lawn like a cow.
So I'll sleep out there then, I said, heading toward it.
She caught me in her arms and held me close. I could feel the laughter, warm in her arms and her chest.
I went apartment hunting that Saturday. My mother was off at work, but before I left, my father called to me from the living room. He was feeling feverish, and lay on the couch, a washcloth sprawled on his forehead like the limp flag of a defeated country. Central heating, he advised. Do you need anything? I asked, but he shook his head. And Mona, he said, make sure you get a place with a toilet that flushes. I nodded. I brought him a glass of water before I left.
The whole idea of moving made me nervous, so I kept company with the number 19 as I walked around town by myself. 19: the third centered hexagonal number. A prime. The amount of time alive of my chin, my toes, my brain. I wandered through the tree-lined streets, to the edge of town where the gray ribbon of highway dressed the hills in the distance like a lumpy yellow gift. I did pass a few for rent signs, but the apartment I finally chose was only three blocks from my parents' house, sparkled with color, came with a toilet so powerful it could flush socks, and had an address that I liked: 9119.
The day I moved in, I placed my furniture pretty much where it had been at home. My bed, formerly grayish from the dimmed atmosphere of my parents' house, was already picking up its old pink tones. I hadn't seen it pink for nine years, and it looked like the color ads in newspapers that retain a steely quality of black-and-white even though they're newly splotched with reds and blues.
I called my mother when the phone was hooked up.
I'm here, I said. What now?
She was eating something crunchy. Decorate, she told me. Have a party.
The blank walls loomed white and empty. I ran through the rooms and said my name in each one.
Mona, I told the kitchen.
Mona, I whispered into the hall closet.
When it hit eleven o'clock, I put myself into the bed I'd slept in my entire life, in a room I'd never slept in, ever, and switched off the lights. The shadows made moving dark spirits on the walls, and I reached over to the potted tree my mother had given me as a housewarming present, and knocked on the trunk. I knocked and knocked. I didn't knock just a few times, I knocked maybe fifty. One hundred knocks. More knocks. One hundred and fifty. More. I stopped and then something felt wrong, my stomach felt wrong, so I knocked some more.
The new place held its own around me, learning. This is me, I wanted to tell it. Hello. This is me protecting the world.
I knocked until midnight. I'd finish and then go back for more. This is how I imagine drugs are. You close in on the wood, pull in your breath, and you want to get it just right and your whole body is taut, breath held, tight with getting it just right and awaiting the release--ssss--which lasts about five seconds and when it's over it's not right again yet, more, you need to go back. Just one more time. Just one more time and I'll get it exactly right this time and be done for the rest of my life.
Once I was all settled in, and each drawer had a purpose, and the bathroom was well-stocked with toilet paper and window cleaner, I invited my mother over for lunch.
My father sent his apologies, but didn't come with her; he was feeling off again; this happened. I served turkey sandwiches using the same brands of mayonnaise, mustard, and bread that my mother bought. After we ate, she brought a bag of cherries from her purse, and asked if I wanted to initiate the apartment by spitting cherry pits out the window. I said no thanks. Years ago, we used to go into their backyard in summertime and perch on the grass and spit cherry pits as far as we could. My mother's spits were badly aimed and ricocheted off to the left; my father was the better spitter, but my learning curve was sharp and I watched him close as those reddish ovals went flying. After he got sick, I did some spitting by myself, which was not very fun, and spit with my mother, which was not very challenging, and once I got him to join me and for some reason he breathed in too quick and the pit went backward and got lodged in his throat. Cherry pits are small, and so it was just three or four seconds of that thick labyrinth breathing but enough to scare us both into shaking. I stopped popping whole cherries in my mouth and took to biting down to pit and eating around that. My father cut his food into tiny pieces.
Before she left 9119, my mother put those cherries, bright as blood cells, on the counter, took out a camera, and snapped some photos of the rooms to show my father later.
I had sex with that one boyfriend. Once. Twice. All at his place. His skin was a buoyant ship over mine, and he kissed silver into the back of my neck, and was fine with my insistence on having lights ON at all times. I like to see what's happening, I explained. Cool, he said, picking at his elbow. After the third time, when we were just starting to get the hang of it, I came home one morning to my new empty apartment; I checked my messages to see if anyone had died while I was out in the world having sex but no one had or at least it was unreported so I sat on the couch and kept a knock going on the side table when I thought of how his eyelashes made a simple black rim when he looked down.
The clock said noon so I went into the kitchen and opened the refrigerator but the food inside looked too complicated and I peered into the cupboards but I didn't want turkey soup, or garbanzo beans, or tuna, and I wandered into the bathroom and without even really thinking about it unwrapped the spare package of soap that I kept in the cabinet beneath the sink.
I bought the same brand my mother did. A bright white bar, rocking on its back, friendly. I brought it to the living room couch, and held it for a while, smelling it, and there was a knife sitting on the side table from the previous day's apple, which seemed convenient, and after a few minutes of just holding and smelling, I picked up the knife, balanced the bar on the arm of the couch, sawed off a portion, set it sailing in my mouth, and bit down.
Slide! Slip! It careened around my tongue. Gave like chocolate under my teeth. I cut another piece. My mouth crammed with froth. Mmm. I cut again. My hand slipped. I steadied the knife, cut again.
I'd chewed half the bar before I realized that it tasted strange, that the feeling it left in my mouth was not right, that there was something about the swallowing part that was wrong. By then it was making me gag and I went to the bathroom where the mirror revealed lather gathered around lip corners in clusters. Sticking the remains of the bar in the shower, I gulped glass after glass of water, spitting up foam into the sink, and the rest of the day I thought very little of the boyfriend, and instead wandered the rooms, burping clean burps, evaluating how badly I felt: Should I just relax? Should I get my stomach pumped?
When I woke up the next morning, slightly dizzy but not
dead, I stumbled into the shower and stood in the spray: meek, naked, distant. I used the straight bitten end of the soap to clean myself, but before I put it back on its shelf, I took one mildly interested nibble. The smell slammed back through me. In an instant, my stomach heaved up and I crouched down, water sticking in my eyes, and threw up down the drain, all whiteness and foam, soap rushing in waves back through me.
Excerpted from An Invisible Sign of My Own by Aimee Bender. Copyright © 2001 by Aimee Bender. Excerpted by permission of Anchor, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.