Whiteout

by Catherine Parnell

By the time I leave Michael’s apartment it’s three in the morning, and
the city’s struggling to shake off the blizzard, which shows no sign of
stopping. The streets shimmer with stormy apparitions: white snow
flecked with the soot of urban war, boot prints like molds for unwieldy
prosthetics, a pink cap embedded in a tower of plowed snow.
The snow-covered cars look like an IED of white flakes exploded. A
tire here, an antenna there. The collision of man and nature, and me
not giving a damn, or I would have made peace with Michael, who
holds the key to my twinned nature. Funny word, that: twin.

I’m somewhere on the continuum of connection and individuation,
and the way is no longer clear, although I’d like to get back to
my hotel room. I know my car’s parked somewhere nearby, but for
the life of me I can’t remember my own name, never mind where I
left the car. I should go back to Michael’s, but if I do I’ll be someplace
I’m not sure I can be. It’s that continuum and connection thing again.

The snow is oddly comforting in its sheer white abundance, and I
remember when, as children, my brother and I stuck out our tongues
to taste snowflakes, which tasted like water, nothing more, nothing
less, but how Lucas laughed. Killy, killy, he’d cry out, in his best approximation
of the word chilly. Michael would have laughed, too, had
he been there. But it was before his time. I’m pretty sure it was, but
memory plays mean tricks on me all the time, and what I remember
may not be what happened. Time’s relentless gravitational pull sucks
me into a wormhole, and I’m on that continuum, but the connection’s
gone glitchy—garbled nonsense.

I tilt my head back, and snowflakes cluster and puddle on my glasses.
Did I expect to see a sign, a miracle? I lift my gloved hand, smear
the wet lenses. Shadows move, and out of the cold white dark three
boys emerge. “Sweetie,” one of them lisps. “Are you lost?” Lost, so
lost, I want to say, but—”I can’t find my car.”

These boys, if they are boys, wear high-heeled boots, silver pants
and tight leather jackets. Lots of metal—chains, studs, hoops, and
mysteriously, a sliver of a moon. Red watch caps rolled up above their
ears. Fingerless gloves. They smell of jasmine and honey. “What are
you doing out so late?” I ask.

“We are lost boys,” they say, circling me. “What are you doing out
thooo late?” one lisps. Another brushes snow off my shoulder.
“Help me,” I say. “I am a lost girl.” And I’m drunk. I’m moving in
time, end to end. The wind blows hard, and I pull my pink scarf tight.
My fingertips tingle.

“Oh, sweetie,” they say in unison, their voices like flames, and I am
warmed. I should be wary, but these boys do not frighten me—stupid
boys with no apparent purpose out in a blizzard, so I let them guide
me from bank to bank until I see my rental car’s antenna whipping
in the wind. The boys speak of stars and glitter, spandex and liquor.
I wonder if they know about wormholes, that one day matter and all
that matters will be sucked into silent darkness—not like the stormheavy
sky above, but an eternal absence of hushed color.

But for now I’m wandering the streets with boys. When I sink into
the snow bank behind my car one of the boys pushes me down and
shoves snow in my face, then pulls me out of the pile, and we fall
back in the street, and we are laughing. “Get in,” I say, opening the car
doors. “I’ll take you home.”

The three of them hum a tune I do not catch as one comes up behind
me. The other two grab my hands and yank them above my
head. The boy behind me dances into my line of vision, and pulls out
a slender metal rod, touches me with it. I’m snapped back from wherever
I was. The weight of the rod is heavier than death. This is not
what I expected. Haven’t I already had my share of shit?

“Pay attention, bitch.” And the rod catches me on the side of the
face. My arms fall to my sides, and my nose bleeds fat drops on the
white snow. “Down, bitch.”

“Fuck you,” I say. “I don’t go down for any man.”

The boy with silver glitter on his face laughs. “We are not men.”

“I don’t care what you are.” But I do. So I wipe my nose and ask,
“What are you?”

“We are the oppressed. By you. You guilty bitches are everywhere.”

I try not to laugh. What do they know about guilt? I punch the silver-
glittered boy in the face, and the rod sinks into the bloody snow.
He staggers, and there it is—the child in him, the inability to understand
an assault. “How does that feel, asshole?” I say, and I aim for
his face, but he turns, and they all run away in the sword-sharp air.
Oppressed citizens in the here of the now of the what will be. You get
beaten down, violated, sometimes killed in the million hours of time
allocated to you. Do they know the clock is ticking? Time will run out,
and they can only run so fast, so far, so pointlessly. A destination is
never what it seems.

***

Earlier, in Michael’s apartment, a vodka bottle sits atop the monstrous
television set, a six-pack of V8 juice to one side of a stack of
books, a bottle of tangerine juice up against the window, which is
open a crack. We have this in common—we love fresh air, no matter
the temperature.

Michael looks at me, his blue eyes like a sun-warmed lake, his
mouth hard. “Pay attention.” The word ‘pay’ rolls over me like a fever,
and I’m sweating debt—we always pay for inattention, so why
not pay for attention? Michael wants what he has always wanted,
and I don’t know what I want. I waver and Michael tells me he loves
me, that we owe it to try to be together—and there it is, owe, debt,
doubt, a payment. I ask for time to think, to assess, to sort, but Michael
says, “No.”

So half of me says yes, OK, all right. The other half is silent, but
I feel disapproval spread across my back like a rash, shoulder blade
to blade and up my neck to my head, and the static cuts in again—a
voice from the wormhole trying to tell me something. I reach for Michael’s
hand, and he pulls me close. We kiss like crazy people, like
teenagers who’ve just discovered the bruising power of desire. It is
what we always do—stumble across the floor to the bed where we
roll in a frenzy, and we are not just friends, we are on the edge of
being lovers. When his hand slips under my shirt and cups my breast
I stiffen. “No,” I say.

“What do you want?” he asks.

“Nothing,” I say, but that’s not true. I want to see planet Earth
shrink to the size of a marble, a brilliant blue cat’s eye, staring back
at me as if to say, “Did you really think you could change anything?”
And it would wink, and I would wink.

“I can’t do this,” I say. As I get up I reach for one of his cigarettes
and go sit by the window, dipping my fingers in the snow on the
ledge. Two drags and I send the cigarette out into the night. The red
tip glows like a shooting star on fire, and Michael looks at me. “Go,”
he says. “Just get out.”

Now I’m in my cold car wondering how you can lose something as
big as direction.

***

Michael and I think we might have met on the shore of a lake somewhere
in New Hampshire, but we’ll never be sure. He swears he was
the one who shoved a cupful of silver minnows down my bikini bottoms,
but there were plenty of boys doing that. It was my first bikini—
a patriotic blue and red number—so small and tight it made me
want to wiggle right out of it.

He might have been the one who brought me French fries in a
cone, or the one who gave me a dripping creamsicle, maybe even the
one who flipped my floating air mattress. He wasn’t the one who
kicked sand at me, nor was he the one who stole my first copy of
David Copperfield and ripped it apart in big chunks, paper flying everywhere,
me running after the pages and crying. And he definitely
wasn’t the one who called my brother a retarded cripple, because I
broke that one’s nose. Blood swept down his chest and into the dim
sand. My fist throbbed with power. But power and protection are not
the same thing. My father, citizen of the world, warned me. You are
not responsible for him, he said, I am.

That’s not the way it works, I told him. He’s my brother, my other
half. My father saw division, but I felt connection. I listened, and I
learned that life is mysterious and hard and full of fucked up chatter.
You do what you can, but it’s never enough. Lucas, my brother, my
teacher. You are with me, but am I with you?

***

There are countries where the majority of children don’t reach five
years. I hear their silence. Places where children’s stomachs bloat,
where flies alight on their eyelashes like baby vultures on thin wires.
And the mothers—they drag their withered dugs from land to land,
seeking peace and decency. The fathers, if they are around, pin their
wide and wanting eyes on grains of rice.

I have seen these things through Michael’s eyes. He hopes; I am
not so optimistic. He can tell stories and exact change. What stories
does he tell about me? A sad, small teacher who set up camp on
the shores of a country surviving on tourism, corruption, and movie
stars and gathered little girls around her. A woman who, if she found
one perfect boy, would never let him out of her sight.

No. No boys. Michael would like to be angry with me about this,
but he knows better. This allowance is the last proof of his regard for me.

***

Lucas and I were twenty-three when our parents died. I fly back
from Belize where I’d started—on sheer idiocy and three thousand
dollars—my small school for girls. My brother, my twin, greets me
at the door. Michael has his paw on Lucas’s shriveled shoulder. My
brother quivers like a puppy, illness darkening his body and parcels
of his mind. He rolls his head and tugs his ear. YeeYee, he says, for he
can’t say Lily. He hums the Buddy Holly song I taught him, but it gets
mixed up with his own off-key tune, and I have to catch up to him. We
see through the same eyes and speak an ancient language—a form
of simplicity so flight-like a hummingbird might understand. Lucas
cuts through the babbling night of my spirit. His instincts are sharp;
he senses the merciless but does not understand them. He leans into
the tenderness I offer up to no one but him.

It is this tenderness Michael smells on me. Lucas is wary. He bats
his arms, sniffs like a hound as Michael kisses me. “Lucas,” I say, but
he croons, YeeYee, YeeYee, YeeYee. The tone and timbre convey the
warning: not he, not he, not he.

If not Michael, then who?

Lucas, I want to say, tell me why not, but that is the beauty of
my brother—he does not use our speech to speak, his palsy and his
language must do. Yet, he’s holding back on me, my own brother.
And then it comes through: Don’t leave me, don’t leave me. I hold my
brother, I tell him we are we.

He releases me, sidles up to Michael, leans into him.
Later, Lucas and I walk past our mother’s closed casket and stand
in front of our father’s open casket, my brother tugging at his tie.
Letting go, he touches my father’s ear. It’s as big as a clam shell, and
Lucas leans in, hums “Happy Birthday to You.” Over and over again,
until I pull him away. Deedee, Deedee, Deedee, he chirps, and this is
how I know Lucas knows our father is gone, for he calls our father
Dasha.

Deedee is what Lucas said when our dog Barney died. Deedee is
what Lucas said when his mouse Athlete died. Deedee is what Lucas
said when they cut down the tree that held his tire swing.
Deedee is what I said when Lucas was killed.

***

Several years later, when I’ve come home for two weeks, Michael,
back from an NGO assignment in Kuwait, has an idea. “Let’s take
Lucas on a harbor cruise.” It is late September 1992. We are twenty-
eight, and the world is a mess. At the residential facility where
Lucas lives, I pack a change of clothes for my brother in case he has
an accident, a handheld tape player with a reel of his favorite songs,
a lined windbreaker, a watch cap, saltines, and ginger ale. Seeing his
blue backpack crammed with his belongings, Lucas hums and moonwalks
in a herky-jerky slide and glide. I clap. “Killer, Thriller,” I say. I
shake my binoculars at him. “We’ll see birds,” I say, and Lucas flaps
his wings and screeches.

The boat churns across the harbor. Michael pulls my hair back in a
ponytail, twists it tight at the nape of my neck, ties it with the string
from his hoodie. My ears are cold. The noise of the engines frightens
Lucas, so I hold him against me, his head on my shoulder. Although
we are the same size, he is curved and bent, all bones and cartilage,
with dabs of fat covered by skin so gray it looks like an overcast sky.
His brown eyes (mine are blue—this happens with fraternal twins,
or so I have been told) water as the boat picks up speed. His cheeks
pink up. He looks alive, almost perfect, but he is not.

It could have been me. When the physician yanked us out, it was
my head pushing through first. Minutes later, Lucas emerged with an
umbilical noose around his neck. What a difference oxygen makes.

We disembark at one of the historical islands, wander the fort. Lucas,
giddy with excitement, jumps, skips, hops. Nearby a group of
guys drink beer, the cans stacked in a silver and blue pyramid. Lucas
moonwalks, stumbles and falls into the cans, which roll and roll
away. Michael pulls him up, but not before one of the guys crushes a
beer can into Lucas’s forehead. “Asshole,” he says. “Fucking retard.”

I raise my fists, but Michael drags me away and shoves me into a
stone wall. Lucas crawls to us, blood in his eyes. Michael lifts him
up, and we check bones and cuts and scrapes while Lucas hums a
wordless aria of pain. There is a perfect circle in Lucas’s forehead,
gleaming with blood. Michael wraps his red bandana around my
brother’s head, and Lucas whoops. He totters down the path. Below
us are squared boulders, fort detritus; above us, gulls hammer the
air. Through my binoculars I spot terns and cormorants by the shore.
At a tidal pool two teenagers dip their toes in the water, and the boy
tugs at the girl’s hoodie. Removing it, she bends down, sweeps her
bare arms through the water. The boy rolls up his jeans and wades in,
and I want to tell him the rocks are sharp, he will cut his feet, but a
tern rises from the water and I follow its path, which intersects with
two objects in the air: my brother’s body and a silver and blue beer can.

“Jesus Fucking Christ,” someone yells as Lucas lands on stone and
breaks open. Last I looked he was behind me and now he is below
me. I don’t understand, and I do understand. Michael reaches Lucas
before I do and holds up his palm. “No, luv,” he says, but no one will
keep me from Lucas. Kneeling next to my brother I hold his thin fingers.
His hand twitches. Michael bellows, “Someone call 911!” But I
know it’s no use. Neurons pop and flare and die. If I can feel this, then
so can Lucas, who looks at nothing, and I say DeeDee. Of course I do.
I speak for both of us.

***

Michael and I lose touch after Lucas dies. I leave the country. He
leaves the country. I move to Belize for forever, or so I think. I have
no idea where Michael goes, but I’m guessing it’s to follow some shitty
little war in some rundown economic global outpost. I’m fighting
my own war. I teach little girls to read. They have little ovaries, tubes,
and eggs waiting for that whipped-tail seed to change their lives. But
words travel faster than sperm, or so I believe, and so I rush to pair
letters with sounds to make words. As an infant sits, words make
a sentence. As an infant crawls, sentences make paragraphs. As an
infant walks, paragraphs make a story. The narrative arcs, leaps, and
spins. Babies dangle, toddle, and walk on their two fat legs. But babies
don’t have wings. Stories do.

If Michael were to write about me it would go like this: This is a
story about a woman who teaches girls that the narrative can be carefully
controlled. This is a story about a group of girls who believe in
the woman until, one by one, they marry and bring their prize-winning
offspring to what was once their school. The teacher tells them
they can stay, but they never do. They have to do home care, they say.
My man, he like his food ready. My baby, she cry and I shush her, so
my man can rest. The teacher sends each of them off with a book,
Aesop’s Fables. These are not true stories, she tells them, but they are
true. The girls laugh. They like her little puzzles. The book does not
contain her favorite fable about the nut tree, but this does not stop
her from inscribing each book with this: I, indeed, bore fruit only for
my own undoing.

***

In 2009, one of my students dies in childbirth. I am overcome with
god knows what, and so I shut the school down for a week. In this
moment of confused exhaustion—did I cry over my mother? My father?
My brother?—I call Michael. As usual, he is unreachable. I leave
a message: I will be leaving for the Belize barrier reef on Tuesday from the
dock near Calypso. That gives him two days to get to me, to save me
from whatever I may do—and what might that be? I haven’t given
up, but I am giving in to green sea turtles and remora fish, eels and
rays, and maybe a few harmless sharks.

Of course he is waiting for me on the dock, having supplemented
the captain’s picnic cooler with vodka and mango juice, lots of it. As
we head out to the reef—we are the only passengers on the boat,
Michael tells me a story. In Africa (he will not say where—Tanzania,
maybe?) an energy company supplying power to small villages encountered
problems with theft of diesel fuel for the generators powering
electricity. “Oh,” I say, “electricity means light, which means
what?” Michael looks at me. “Don’t be stupid, luv. This is about more
than light—it’s about food, refrigeration, health.”

“Well, yes,” I say. “We all need that. But I want to live in a small
hut, reading by candlelight, eating whatever falls from the trees.” My
mind is a beautiful thing when it’s working. Apparently I’ve flicked
the idiocy switch on in my brain. It filters reality, adds dimension,
breaks architectural partitions to smithereens. In floats eternity
along with a dolphin, clicking and whistling, spouting water through
its blowhole.

“You can’t go back in time,” Michael says.

“Anyway?” I reply. My hair is wet, slick with water from boat spray.
The smell of salt overpowers me, and I stick a strand of my hair in my
mouth and suck it.

Michael puts his hand on my forehead, checking my temperature.
This might be why I called him, but the flutter in my gut says no, ask
for more.

“In Africa,” he starts.

“In Africa there are lions and giraffes,” I say. I’m giddy with my own
need to tell this story to my girls, but they would want to know if the
animals eat anyone. Ferocious, ruffed lions.

“Not where I’m talking about,” he says.

“OK, in your Africa.” I would like to tell him my girls have Africa in
their blood, but I suspect he knows.

“There are outbuildings for the generators, tanks of diesel fuel.”

“Ugly,” I say.

“No,” Michael says, and he’s getting excited. “They built bunkers
for the men who guard the generators. Tilled the land, told them to
grow vegetables. And not a drop of diesel fuel was stolen.”

This makes me want to cry—his men win, my girls lose. Or do
they? Who am I to judge?

“Michael,” I ask, “what are you doing? Don’t you ever wonder?”

“I do what you do,” he says. “I work with money and words, spend
the money, work the words, over and over until someone really sees.
And so it begins—or ends.”

And I get it, I really do. He writes what we should all read. But
we don’t. And what difference has my word-work made? They aren’t
even my words, for god’s sake.

***

Burned, but not yet blistered, Michael and I retreat to his already-booked
hotel outside Belize City, where we drop off our gear. Then we wander
the beach, pick up chunks of calcified conch shells and toss them out
to sea. Stop at every zippy little shack, order fruity drinks, suck them
down, and keep walking. By midnight we reach a construction site
littered with plastic bottles and Styrofoam containers. Michael hops
into the cab of a bulldozer, and I sit in the bucket. Before I know it,
I’ve been lifted so high I can touch the stars.

Lucas is up there somewhere, and so are my parents. I am all that’s
left, and I think of our family’s first ten years in the country of constant
war, the caps, blasts and bombs, and for the first time, I understand
what my father gave up so we could be safe—foreign service
for life as a professor. How very grim it must have been. And my
mother? She had Lucas, always Lucas, because I ran away. I never got
far, I always went back to Lucas.

It’s a long walk back to the hotel, maybe three miles, and except for
the stars, it’s dark. The waves beat a soft rhythm on the sand; people
sleep in hammocks strung from tree to tree. When Michael and I trip
up the brick steps to his hotel room, we startle a lizard. I head for the
shower, and when I come out, wrapped in a sliver of a towel, Michael
hands me a T-shirt. I grab a mango and take tiny bites out of it, but
it’s no use. I’m a sticky mess, but at least I’m not hungry, and I’m
more or less sober. Michael comes out of the bathroom with nothing
on, and I’m mildly embarrassed. He grabs a mango, climbs into bed,
and pats the mattress. “Come on, luv,” he says. “Get some sleep.”

Of course he’s gone in the morning—and so is the T-shirt of his I
was wearing. I roll over to his side of the bed and bury my head in his
pillow. It smells like mangoes, sweet and sour all at once.

***

I’d come to Boston during that grinding blizzard to meet donors for
my school and literacy program, and it was chance, plain dumb luck,
that Michael was sitting at the table next to ours in an Indian food
restaurant in the city. He was with two other men, one whose face I
recognized from TV, the other clearly a veteran. Buzz cut, body hard
and straight as a two by four. The guy’s face was in the tender stage
of healing. A pink scar ran from his mouth to his ear. I remembered
then that the TV guy was one of Michael’s roving buddies; the two
of them were interviewing the vet. They didn’t look up, and I settled
in for a long dinner of wooing and drinking, hoping I’d get at least
thirty thousand out of the bleating liberals I was dining with, thanks
to one of my father’s friends. The group plied me with questions; I
regaled them with stories, although I left out the pregnancy issues. I
showed them the anthology a small press had published—each girl’s
story prefaced by a longer essay I’d written about the child, for they
really were children. The donors, wearing more clothes than my girls
would own in a lifetime, were touched, deeply touched.

Someone tapped my shoulder, and when I looked up I saw Michael’s
back. He walked slowly down the stairs to the restrooms in
the basement. I excused myself and followed him. He caught me as I
came around the corner. “Source the deal,” he said. “They’ll give you
money, just leak a tear or two.”

“Good to see you,” I said.

He put his hand on my shoulder, shook me a little. “Stop by after
11,” he said. “We can catch up.” Ragged exhaustion crossed his face.
“My place, my home.” His eyes say, It could be your home, too.

Home—I lost mine so long ago that every place I went felt like a
bus stop.

So the donors donated, and after they left, I walked out into the
storm. The icy sidewalks were like miniature skating rinks, and I slid
across a few with dangerous joy, knowing I might fall at any moment.
My car was one of about twenty in the underground garage, and
security warned me to get where I was going and fast, honey, and I
headed to Michael’s apartment. By then the snowstorm was wilder,
whiter, so I left my car in the nearest unplowed spot and trudged
through the snow and slick streets. I stayed, then I left. Or got kicked
out. And the boys, the silly stupid blizzard boys.

But something happened that I can’t put my finger on, and for
once, I wanted to know what it was. So as I sat in my car, pissed at the
sparkle boys, feeling lost and more than a little alone, a cop knocked
on my window.

“Ma’am,” he said. “Storm’s picking up again. You just leave your car
where it is. Is there a place you can stay?”

I nodded.

“Good,” he replied. “Let me take you there.”

***

And so I wind up back at Michael’s place, where he gives me the once
over, but he ignores the bruise erupting on my face. “Thought I got
rid of you,” he says, but he pulls me in, brushing snow off my coat.

“You’re not my first choice either,” I reply.

“You’re an idiot,” he says.

“Every village has one.” I shrug.

He shakes his head, ruefully, and his handlebar mustache—why
that, I always wondered, and then I knew, it hid his quivering lips—
has droplets of vodka in it. I smell it from where I stand.

He walks to the window and lights a cigarette. I’m so wracked with
cold I quake in my boots. “Get in bed. Be good to yourself, just this
once, OK? Get in bed.” I peel off my wet clothes and crawl under the
warm, dry comforter, aware, suddenly, that I am really old. Although
my skin is Belizian sun-dark, my bones feel like thin glass. My eyes
are weak from staring at the sun in warmer climes; my hands tremble,
and this makes me smile. Lucas, I think, soon I will be like you.
I’ve gone through life without my twin, and it has been hard. Bits of
me are floating out there like snowflakes, pure, white, and ready to
melt and evaporate.

Michael pours himself another drink, but there’s hardly any vodka
left. He fills the glass with tangerine juice and swears. “Some people
don’t want to be happy,” he says. “You’re one of them.”

The tip of my nose is freezing. I almost enjoy the sensation, but
it seems wrong to do that. Have I ever been right, correct, sound of
mind and body? Here, in Michael’s apartment, I’m naked, cold, and
tired, and there’s a blizzard outside, and Belize and my girls are a long
way away, and what I want is to know what I’ve forgotten. What if I
could watch my life as it unfolded?

I sink into the pillows and exhaustion slides into me, raising me
above the room. I’m floating on the ceiling, looking down at Michael,
who’s picking up my wet clothes. The wind beats against the window;
the lights flicker. Don’t leave me, I think, or maybe I say it out loud.
Michael shakes out my skirt and drops of water bullet the air. He
holds up my shirt, turns, and looks at me. Time slips through the
empty shirtsleeves.

I open my eyes.