Walking to work through snow and crabapple blossoms not
floating but gutter slush, my granddad says, why not
give your man some dishes to do? Yeah, he would do it without
me asking, without a second shift to convince him. Not.
Exhausted I forgot and said, he's a young man, what
can I expect? What were you like at twenty-five? This useless? I was not
allowed, he said, when I was twenty-five I was a refugee in France, thought
I could take care of myself. And I did. Well, I said, he's not
his own man. I almost said, he knows nothing, caught
between wanting a waitress and mother. But I did not
say all this to my granddad, his breath sharp, his walk
hitched as mine was by exhaustion, though not
the same kind. His, knowing too much, mine, knowing naught but
what would keep me up at night, but what would not
serve me except to whip my mind, like the thickening snow, into a froth.
Some milk-froth mornings I wonder what records he kept, or not,
a journal in France while the Algerian students rioted, an angry knot
at the end of the block, his memories of Cairo a thicker knot
that has never full unraveled, at least not
while I was present, thoughts of lemons and prayer and polio a heart-knot,
one threads would skip from like tiny slipped tongues, bits of caught
breath with a word, a trip down the block. Overheard Arabic ties my tongue in a knot.
I am the tongue, the book open like hands, the crock.
I open, a blossom or a snort, for language, but nothing: cough up a knot.
What would he have written about in France? The strange blossoms? The jot
of a woman's skirt like a word up the back of her legs? What images knot
in his heart when Paris or Tahrir Square crop up
on the news? Are years along the Hudson enough to knot up
memories of those older rivers, Seine and Nile, fraught
with things not done, things lost? The Hudson a rope, Half Moon Bay the knot
he would start his days from on the train, wide water, a clot
shallow enough for train-tracks and the nuclear power plant, his brow knotted
over the New York Times, dawn just a thought
on the other side of the Palisades. I know that crossing. Early mornings I'd knot
my bikini tight and wriggle into a wetsuit often
still damp from the day before, knot
my keys to the backband on the inside of the kayak, squat
in the sand among broken beer bottles and bricks and knots
of seaweed. In dream and memory I'm alone, the squawk
of cormorants and the tide-rush on the bow prayers, kisses, knots.
Skimming the surface of the Hudson like a cormorant I forgot
my petty hurts, my raw burns, the semester's chest knots
loosened, finally, by the hands of the water. I forgot
I was working. I forgot to hate myself. I forgot.
Salt and sunscreen stung my eyes, knotted
my hair, the river like it had forgotten
the space between sky and water, the bridge lost
in a salt haze risen with July heat, the days time forgot.
What does it feel like: the paddle sweep, ease through water, shoulders taut?
It's been too long. My body forgot.
Now my chest cracks with the thought, the shot
from the tracks above the bridge: I always forgot
how loud the commuter train got
at high tide when we forgot
to glance down the tracks before the cross
from the Hudson into the Croton, a mouth long forgotten
by all but the kayakers and day-drinkers and lost
fly-fisherman too far below the Croton Dam in the forgotten
slip of icy water tumbling over felled trees, over rocks.
Back to the train, its churn, its hum, the schedule I always forgot.
Then, the river was mine, my waves, my work, my slow night rock.
I did not wonder about my granddad on the train out of Croton, forgot
he once did the same commute through the woods winding on top
of the ridge above the river. How could I have forgotten
our common drives? Though his Croton Point Park
was a landfill to be passed on the train, full of detritus tossed or forgot,
the same pull, like the tide downriver, brought
us there, the pull of work on mind or shoulders, the division forgot
for something briefly complete on the trading floor or the sand, the hot
shimmer of earning something, of worth, of putting ourselves above "forgot".
Sometimes surprise fills me like the river tide, surprise that we have not fought
more, that he has embraced me as granddaughter. But then I forgot
how we are not cut from too-strange cloth: both fought
against our tempers, and against us our tempers fought back.
Perhaps he saw him in me, in my bossy squeak from the Chevy's back
seat, in my dark moon face, in the shifting stack of books on my back.
Did he see his home in me? When we cook, cracking
chickpeas for hummus, me with the fork in my hand and him leaning back
on the far side of the phone? When I smack
the heck out of limes and cumin seed? Or do I bring him back
to his early days in New York, as a young man cracked
by years and miles from a far-off home? One thing is sure. He can never go back.
Cairo croons through the news, all longing and horror, a slack
face he used to know and love, the back side
of something ugly and long-ago, like a ripped photo, a scrap.
I imagine him pressing yogurt-cheese and rolling falafel with his back
to Fox News. How he stands the flack
we all get, with our strange names or covered hair or dark backs?
Don't ask. I don't. At home, I ignore the news, wish I could track
the fate of our name to Cairo, to Beirut, all the way back.
Later. I'm never ready to ask,
who were the women in our family? Did they go back?
I want to ask who they were when the room went black,
when the food was eaten, sons sleeping in the back.
I want to ask who did the laundry. Who danced when the radio newscast
ended, who knew which books had family photographs in the back,
who knew when the mosaics, small and blue like the sea, were cracked,
who read mystery novels in the back
of mass when she thought no one could see, an escape hatch,
through her scarf. Who cooked when her back
hurt, who ground the lamb, who poured wine over ice till it cracked,
who rolled her eyes, who thought on the steps, a story always on the back
of her mind, who looked at the river-haze over Cairo in the dark
before dawn, the way I did over the Hudson after a night driving back
from New Jersey. I want to ask, who was like me? And I am afraid to ask.
He always says, ask your great uncle, he likes to look back.
I'm afraid to ask: do you remember my face? It's become sharp,
as if time were slowly turning me back
into a knife. And my uncle thrusts the knife into a book, but
not in life, in my dream where I'm back
in New York on Christmas Eve, saying but
you've got to tell us what you know, but
you've been to Cairo, but you know. What,
without memory, without Arabic and winding streets, can we become but
lost? In my dream, my aunt pulls the lamb from the oven,
my face opens into a mosaic of broken glass and brick, cold but
fresh out of the sand at the lap of the Hudson.
We make plates. We eat. We could do nothing but.
I wake from dream Christmas Eve to Mad Men on TV, the glut
of sleek clothes, drinks, cigarettes: everything but
what we've known of New York. Hard to imagine this scuttled world
was what my granddad met, like the Bronx was another country. But
then, maybe, it was. He's told me of walking blocks
and missing blood oranges. I imagine small railroad kitchens, full but
not home, subtropical plants struggling
on the fire escape, the Jewish and Lebanese blocks everything but
home. Only in the last few years have I heard more than little buds
of nothing about my granddad when he was my age, more, but
not enough. Could they hear the noise from old Yankee stadium, the buzz
on August nights? How did his mother make it through winter, nothing but
tiny oranges and the cloisters to see her through those endless months
of gray and slush pushed into the Hudson? But
what else? What am I missing? Early mornings with his butt
on the Post rather than the spray-painted subway seat, green signs the same but
coated in just a bit less grime? The bodega guy grinding a cigarette butt
into the sidewalk outside his crumbling walk-up? The butt
of a joke on Canal amongst the bargain-hunters, the crux
of being new to New York: that there's always someone whose butt
just landed at JFK with a suitcase and not much else? The hunt
for who my granddad was and who I might be lands my butt
in hot water, one day the library. One day I will ask, burnt
by not knowing. Later. Tonight Joe Cuba butts in
when I really want the blues. Don't know why, there's no sun
up in the sky, stormy weather … as kids, we'd plant our butts
in the backseat for mambo, the one tape my mom
could play for both us and my granddad without anyone butting
heads over volume or radio station. Yes, cassette. What
else. I sing mambo stormy weather and it's almost like my butt
is in the cracked front seat of the family station wagon, hot
on the backs of my legs, windows cranked, my butt
in the wet seat of a sea-kayak surrounded by green, life rutting
in every leaf and rotted magnolia blossom and algal streak, butt
wet but c'est la vie, that's river life and her glorious rot.
Nights like this I miss New York. Never go back? My butt.
I imagine my dad, so different from his dad, surrounded by basement rot,
tuning his guitar to the blues in me and New York spring. Here, rot
goes slow. Who loves blues here, where there are no peepers to crok
and meep and sing them? On my bruised and bitten tongue, questions rot.
When I miss home, I mix up tahina and lime and garlic, cut
in stained-glass slices. My granddad escapes New York's rot
each weekend for Paterson, New Jersey, sends me tahina from Beirut.
I have no idea what Beirut tastes like, but home, which cannot rot
the way other memories do as long as I do not
forget to call, nor toss all my photographs, which show not
the most beautiful composed shots
of beam and road and woods, but moments not
arranged, a mix of familiar and strange, a plot
made from busted houses and lit trees, my sister shaking Not
out of her hair, a girl of proud fire. And that is what
still baffles me. How did our granddad not
carry over roles for us, his granddaughters, roles taught
by old Cairo, by the church, the tight knot
of being female in so many places? What
made him decide to give my sister her pride, give me not
rules and regulations but tools, the fat lot
of what he knew, some extra besides? We are not
what we would have been in Egypt, or France, our hotheaded
selves veiled, likely not
allowed to run, write about the wild night, plot
our own lives. But here, we are human, not
wives or in-waiting. He has told us, you cannot
waste time, worry about initials after your name not
before it, get the degree, the briefcase on the hot
subway, men can wait. How many grandfathers would not
agree, would not be able to see us for who we are, would slot
us into woodcut women, rigid and too small? As a little girl, he'd not
wind the clock until I got home, then hold me up to count pears, whole or rotted,
before setting me loose on math flashcards. Now, we try not
to step on each other's toes when arguing how hot
to fry the falafel, how much cumin really goes in, how not
to invest, how Uncle Sam aught
to spend my meager buy-in; we try not
to argue politics in English, lest we stop
speaking all together. That's what Arabic is for, the knotted
cord when on the phone with his brother, the flashing dot
that makes us joke the NSA is not
tracking terrorists but listening to family gossip
because it doesn't know any better. Not
what I'd expect from an army man. But what
has my granddad done that has been expected, not
a little private, and proud, and strange? At what cost?
He says B, you are like me sometimes. I am. And I am not.
Bridget Menasche is a graduate student at the University of Colorado at Boulder. She loves all bacteria that doesn't live on her kitchen counters; painting dead things; and humming over cancer cells. Her work can also be found in Fiddleblack, the Adroit Journal, PANK, Parcel, The Ghazal Page, and Lime Hawk.