I remember how we hiked Turkey Mountain back when you still thought it was a mountain. This was before you started with soccer, before you learned that language of fakes and shots I could never get right, shouting on the sidelines for you to boot it, before you found your troupe of polo-ed, big boned girls who rocked our house with their Doc Martin step, their laughter a flock of loosed Canadian geese. This was before you disappeared into the briar of grunge music, tunneled into books about runaways and orphan girls who hid in abandoned train cars, or left the village where they were from, set out bow-and-arrowed across a pre-historic tundra on some vague quest for home (yes, I skimmed those sex scenes, they were strange and not right for a twelve-year-old, but I would not take them from you, I would not be like my own mother, who shuddered at the word golden rod, shook her head at my Nancy Drews, saying why does she put herself in those situations then?).
Turkey Mountain still a mountain, you in Keds not cleats, and it was enough for us to hike that wide, gummy path, the rocks long yanked by the local Boy Scouts, the wild turkeys long fled north to the Catskills. You would ask me the names of everything and I could tell you. Virginia Creeper, Canada Mayflower, Queen Ann’s Lace, I could say, letting the names roll slow off my tongue. I wasn’t a performer like your father, couldn’t weave your name into backyard willow swing songs, couldn’t dress as King Tut for sixth grade social studies classes, come home and break you up with cracks about Cleopatra, but I could give you this: wild geranium, bear oak, mountain laurel, lady glade fern, and it seemed important. I could imagine how we’d talk when you got older, how I’d name the itchy thrill of pulling weeds after a long day of occupational therapy, of coaxing children to hold a pencil right, tie a shoe, the dark calm of a cleared plot when you’re worried about your husband lunching with a woman who has your same first name but has a sense of humor, appreciates Woody Allen and can take a joke, or so he tells you.
Sometimes I’d bring my Audubon Society guidebook with the glossy pages, and we’d try to name the Turkey Mountain birds before they startled. Tufted titmouse, pileated woodpecker, barn owl. You would write it all down in your black and white composition notebook, your letters still oversized and shaky. At the top, when the trees fell away and the ground become veined granite, frostweed, we would break out our thermos of apple juice, a package of Chips Ahoy—this was before your energy bars from the Sports Authority, before the holy wafer of whole wheat, before you demanded vegetables the way they do it on the Food Network, not boiled—and we’d eat and you’d read the names back to me, and I’d nod.
I’d point out the Taconic on the horizon, leading away from Hawthorne toward to the city, the outline of the Manhattan skyline, that dull bracelet rising above the pale green. “Uh huh,” you would say and point at a nearby cardinal, dull brown, female, perched in the wintergreen. You’d want to know the name of the grasses, the tangled sweet vernal, the switchgrass. You were unimpressed by distance, by perspective then. You loved what was what was in front of you, what you could hold, smell, touch, the violets that burst from the crab grass of our lawn, the brassy mouths of daffodils cupping a late snow, our saucer magnolia, the creamy blooms that fell on the ice-buckled concrete of our driveway, which we shoveled together when the winter storms came, with the same red, plastic shovels.
I’m not sure when you first called the suburbs a false sunflower, a not-the-city, a not-the-country, a Play Mobile world we’d made the mistake of raising you in. I remember the night you came home from one of your soccer parties smelling of cheap beer and CK One, dressed in your father’s flannel, dirty sneakered. “There’s nothing to eat,” you said, slamming the kitchen cabinets open and shut. I called you ragamuffin, lumberjack, common stitchwort. I said, clean up your act, girlie. What I wanted to say, of course, was it hurts me to see your long hair snarled in a bun, your young, perfect body swathed in his old clothes. You are amaryllis, a red cedar full of purple and yellow finches, the silk tree arcing in front of my reading room window, despite your lack of fine motor skills, your untied shoes. It came out wrong though. I’d had a lot of wine, my chest covered in steel wool, and you looked at me, in my primrose night gown and pink slippers, sipping rose, your father out with her, you looked at me and you called me cheap baby’s breath, a garish Easter dress, gas station carnations, a pair of white patten leather flats two sizes too small. You called me the goutweed creeping up the side of our house, a dull cover vine, a kind of lethargy. You called me your winterkill. And you, you, were metal cleats pressed to my bare heart.
I sensed you would leave, then, but I wasn’t prepared for how far you would go, to states I’d never been to, states with names that bloom hard on the tongue. Illinois, California, Louisiana. “The magnolias are different here,” you said over the phone from Lafayette, your voice thin and high. “They’re the real deal. Not like those small things we have in New York. The leaves are like boats. The flowers are as big as grapefruits.”
“That must be nice,” I said. “Send me a picture,” and you promised and then didn’t. I understood. You were busy, switchbacking through your advanced degrees, filling new notebooks with philosophies of love in your father’s handwriting, words like idealize and corporeal and phenomenological and dialogical, words that glinted like suspension bridges, that must have seemed to you like a way out of pain, a way over the murky waters of the self.
“You’re idealizing the past,” you told me, when I took your father back, after the woman with my name left him. “Your romanticizing who he was.”
I’ll admit that part of me liked the sound of those words too, wanted to rip away from the pen our yard had become, leave the drooping bleeding hearts, the pachysandra full of lost baseballs and garden snakes. I’ll say it here: there was debt involved, your brother’s college to think of, my jade earrings, the upcoming summer trip to Greece. There were the years we’d had together, surrounding us like a thousand hard, buried bulbs. There were the sayings in my AA books, promises of small joys that could be strung together, day by day, like the chains of white clover you used to make during your brother’s baseball games. I brewed chamomile tea, worked to forget how he’d called me fertilizer lime, the burlap sack thrown over the life he thought he wanted.
“You should fight harder for your independence, for your subjectivity,” you said, and I felt something in me go hard, shut down. “Notebook-eyed girl,” I called you. “Goldie locks narcissus, bouqueted jonquil, silly, naive thing. You don’t know marriage. You don’t know loving-a-man. You don’t know shit,” I said, the words ugly and dumb in my mouth, bloody as half-cooked steaks though in that moment I wanted to shove your smooth, unlined face in them.
These days, your eyes are winged in creases. When you come home, we stick to safe topics: the color you painted your bathroom (periwinkle), your academic publications (something about online dating) and what they mean for your tenure trek (they are good, azalea your CV), the school where I work now (under-funded, a garbage strewn wood), the new holocaust novel I’m reading (you keep meaning to read it too). You call me by the name on my license, on my electrolysis bills. I call you by the name on your office door, in the university building you’re too ashamed to let me enter when I visit, worried that I’ll make you look like less than you are to your colleagues, a professor who is not a real professor, like a mountain that is not a mountain.
If there is time, when you come home for holidays, between over-rich dinners and outlet mall sales, we walk the old neighborhood. You are unhappy, you tell me this Easter, twenty-eight, alone again. You didn’t expect your own heart to cleft and wither the way it did, your suspension bridge words turned Wal-Mart jewelry. You aim for a new metaphor, say something about an oil spill, or earthquake weather, I forget which, and I nod but I don’t understand, don’t know that faulted ground, that ruined water, don’t know what name to give your grief, what words could be a desiccant, or if you even want a desiccant. I say, you are your own lit bridge. I say, I wish I had traveled more when I was young, like you.
And it is true some days, in mid-February, when your father is sitting in front of the television with a bowl of pistachios, watching Woody Allen’s New York. There the women are all young and white-bloused and painting sunny landscapes on sidewalk aisles, waiting to be charmed by Woody Allen. You call me from a Zydeco club in Lafayette, knowing how I love to two-step. You say, “Even the teenagers know all the moves,” your voice vined in accordion melodies and I wish I could be there with you, in that state where the philodendron leaves are big as ceiling fan blades, where you can walk through rows of camellias all through the long winter.
You’re lucky, I tell you while we walk the neighborhood, while the porch lights go on and the crocuses close. I tell you, you’re still young. I tell you to join a gym, or find a soccer league, remember how you used to love being on a team? I tell you to stop calling him up, that you’re making it harder on your own self. I talk about weeding dandelions, the need to get at the hidden roots, those tentacles, those Rapunzel tresses wired into the deep dark.
“It’s not that simple. You don’t know what it’s like,” you say, picking up your pace, your gaze lifting to the lit windows of other people’s houses, then down to the new neighbor’s rock garden. “What’s this?” you want to know, nudging a zinnias bowed head with the toe of your boot, and I think of all the years you and your girlfriends played 2 v. 2 beside my flowerbeds, how, after awhile, the irises and tulips took on a stunned, battered look.
“I’m not sure,” I lie, though when I look at you it’s hard to stay angry. Your voice is cigarette horse, you haven’t touched a ball in years, your legs are too thin in your polyester thrift store skirt, your hands are fists at your sides. I remember how as a girl you’d come to me, April afternoons, robins eggs nested in your palms, how you’d arrange gold leaves on blue solar paper for silhouettes, how at the rocky top of Turkey Mountain, still-a-mountain, you scrutinized the rainwater pools like we were astronauts on the moon, like this was the prehistoric tundra, studied the teenager’s graffiti like hieroglyphics, and I felt strong and fierce beside you, my legs pleasantly sore from the half-mile up, my cheeks flushed, the world stretching thick and green around us.
And I could not guess then the many ways you would leave me, the habitats that would rise between us, too fast to name, the distant geographies you would claim as your own, the non-native plants—camellia, bellfire begonia—I would learn and try to grow here, though they wilt at the first hint of New York winter, have to be brought inside, set far from the windows, treated with special lights. Plants whose blooms flare in the gray afternoons when my AA books are full of fake pearl necklaces, when your father is joking with a young Diane Keaton, when my body feels stiff and woven through with dandelion roots, when it is too much to answer your long distance call, to hear the thorned bramble of your voice, to start it out, that rock strewn, switchbacked, bewildering path that leads to you.