For several years after I had my second child, I stopped looking in mirrors. What I found in my reflection could not easily be remedied.
When I visited my two younger sisters, once or twice a year, I was unprepared for their altered contours: burgeoning bellies and hips and upper arms. It was inescapable. We resembled the slavic peasants we descended from.
But one of my sisters had also had a baby, and here resemblance held a different kind of fascination. Her son looked a little like her, a little like my older son. (It is as if our husbands didn’t matter!) And my younger son—everyone agreed he looked like me. To me, he looked like they did when they were children. Every time I beheld my younger son, I saw my siblings; I was a child again, beholding them.
“I don’t need to use deodorant—I don’t have body odor,” my sister announced one night as she warmed up a bottle and poured a second glass of wine. She’s also, she tells us, allergic to shellfish. Unlike the rest of us. My other sister, the littlest girl—I remember toe fungus that wouldn’t go away when she was a toddler. I remember her as a baby under an oxygen tent—bronchial pneumonia. There were certain things about our bodies that had no resemblance to one another. Of course, even the individual memory varies in its susceptibilities. We remember different things, my sisters and I.
What I remember about them are these tender privacies. “Beauty marks,” our bout with chicken pox and the subsequent scars. I remember my mother paring their nails, and cutting their hair, taking splinters out of their fingers, and beating them. Whether they think about my tender privacies, my cowlicks, how I had mysterious all consuming stomachaches, they don’t immediately say. I don’t ask.
My sister has an upper-arm sleeve of tropical flowers. She says it’s not done but she has to save up the money to finish it; then, the baby comes, and she quits her job, and there’s never any money. It’s a handsome tattoo. And who among us hasn’t indulged in an idle fantasy about the tattoo we would get. That line of text or image that would sum our spirit up, the way a zodiac sign or totem animal summed one up, when one believed in such things.
A few months ago my brother-in-law sent us a DVD of Incendies, a drama about the Lebanese civil war full of horrors, but the greatest horror is this one: the protagonist, a young woman, must give up an illegitimate baby boy at the start of the movie; the story follows her as she goes from orphanage to orphanage later on, looking for her son, whom her mother tattooed on the heel to identify him. Soon she is incarcerated for political transgressions, raped, gives birth in jail… eventually she emigrates. Now middle-aged, she is swimming in a community pool in Canada when she is suddenly brought face-to-face with her jailor-rapist. Or rather, face to foot. She identifies her rapist by his face, and then identifies her son by his tattooed heel. They are the same man. Like Achilles’ heel, like Odysseus in his bath, you will be known by your foot.
And never more so than when you write in feet.
I suppose it would be unconvincing, being a poet, to aver that I want to blend in, not stand out. But I am most comforted when I resemble others. I imagine a last judgment—a throng of women, naked and abject: there will be nothing to distinguish me. I remember the mole on my mother’s neck, the exact heft of my grandmother’s hand in the nursing home, the Belorussian whiteness of her flesh. But in contemplating myself and my fate, I have no distinguishing characteristic. When I write the perfect poem, I have come to think, it will sound as if it could be in anybody’s voice.
Ange Mlinko’s poetry collections include Starred Wire and Shoulder Season, both available from Coffee House Press. Her forthcoming book, Marvelous Things Overheard, will be published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux next fall.
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