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21:36 - Wednesday, Dec. 08, 2004
who keeps her vines grown long
My shameless plea was fruitless, but I still got a final draft - NO THANKS TO YOU.
:P
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Who Keeps Her Vines Grown Long

When you try to put it into words, it comes out in pastels. It’s a perpetual-motion square-within-square-within-square, scribbled black on gray on white. It’s lopsided ninety-degree angles and those superfluous lines that stray like staticky hair along the cracks of the watercolor paper.
All outside is, you think, you sketch, is circle upon circle, square within square, of possibility. Which is terrifying. The first few layers, those shedding skins of familiarity, are slightly less so, and this is where you stay.

* * *

The first layer is 8x13. Wallpapered in abstract tree trunk strips – like, the painted kind. Sideways, the branches and flowers have a pattern that is invisible when standing upright. Swathed in animal print quilts at age seven, wide-awake eyes up past their bedtime perceived for the first time: there was a trapezoid. And a dreidel shape. And a rhombus, and a pointing index finger, and a cat’s fist. Swathed in animal print quilts, the shapes marching across and repeated up down left right looked like an army. You counted – your seven-year-old self counts – the times the figures repeat in one line, the number that can march and fit before hitting the ceiling. The next morning, on the way to the bathroom, you glanced, and you stopped, and stared, and remembered. Right side up, there is no cat’s-fist rhombus dreidel army, just snaking branches and flowers.
So your first layer contains your tree wallpaper.
Something safe to think about.
Amid the jungle of the army-by-night and forest-by-day, you have your cats. Like you, they are confused as to what to do with the wallpaper. Climbing it has failed to produce satisfactory results; the paper is torn from three feet all the way to the floor, but the cats, sadly, remain grounded. They yowl and tumble on the hardwood floor when they are not eating, shedding, throwing up, or sleeping. Cat behavior is soothingly predictable. Their routine, day after day, is almost a layer itself. Often, you spend hours on end combing your cats’ fur and listening to jazz; this, so static and serene, can almost be thought of as a necessity, like drinking water or sleeping.
Wallpaper, and cats, and books as well, carefully selected for their full departure from reality. Even so, in worlds of aliens and AI robots, cognizant monkeys and trees with the gift of language, a two-dimensional universe and girls in cloaks being eaten by wolves, your books contain by definition the third and fourth and hundredth layer, but only when open, and only when light, and in focus.
And anything layerless, or beyond the first three or four, is too precarious; you may begin to find things out, terrible frightening things, like—
* * *
Your youngest cat may run away. Not on purpose. She is four months old, orange and black and white, like a piece of Halloween candy corn. To her, the world is your first few layers plus endless fascinating smells. Straw and mud to roll in. Binocular vision like yours, but red-green colorblind: she will never be able to catch the robin that dive-bombs her on the front porch. Instead, she tries to follow you to work.
Your boots crunch the leaves on the sidewalk against the underlying matrix of ice, and she follows that sound. When commuters on the sidewalk kneel to pet her, she ducks her head and darts, weaving. She runs, and her elongated leaper-legs push her hindquarters to a speed that surpasses her front. They jerk to the side, and she kicks herself in the ear. Yowling, she pushes on. Six, seven blocks. Trying to chase her back only results in mewling ecstasy that you have finally, at long last, returned. Now, you can fulfill your sole purpose of dragging string with pom poms on the end and wadding up sheets of paper to throw. To her, these bouncing folds of white contain blood and meat. To her, the pom-pom has a family, and she would like to consume the whole unit.
Yet, outside, where there are real meat-and-blood balls swishing their frizzy tails and scolding from far-off branches, where there are winged five-course dinners raising dessert-babies in bushes, she chooses not to indulge, but to trot, trot, trot, blissfully oblivious, and follow you to the train station. The train station, whose five-course dinners are poison: dumpster-diving pigeons.
You are thinking of buying her one of those electronic collars that shocks her when she leaves the block. But you haven’t, not yet, and she cannot get through the station turnstiles, not legally, at least, and with a shove of your foot and a secret offering of catnip from your palm, she trot, trot, trots back in the opposite direction. The direction is vaguely correct, but only vaguely. It is Halloween, and she skids over the strewn pumpkin guts in the street as she lifts her nose in the air to sniff her way.
At work, you can think only about the possibility of having a lost cat. In Microsoft Word, you draft your posters for tree trunks, streetlights, community centers. They read
LOST: CANDY CORN KITTEN.
and
REWARD

but that is all you can write, in your best calligraphy, before a tear blurs the page, and before the boss comes by and inquires as to how she can help find your lost cat. It would be too, too awkward to try and explain, so you reach inside yourself for all the remembered lost-pet stories you’ve ever heard from other grieving crazy-cat-ladies or animal shelter volunteers. The fat sleepy Maine Coon who dozed atop the garage door, escaping a sure squashing so many times that he eventually escaped for good. The newly adopted Dalmatian puppy that leapt out the window of the station wagon on his way to get his first rabies shot. The fifteen year old Persian who, after fifteen years of being completely content shedding the same winter fur on the same red armchair, wandered out the unused pet door and up into the mountains.
Your boss puts her arm around you, and, keeping it there, she types out an office wide e-mail on your computer with her other hand organizing a search party for directly after work, at five. Now, instead of being terrified your cat has run away, you are terrified that she is, at this moment, at home, purring away in her cat condo. You will have to hide her. You will be expected to provide refreshments for the searchers, and you will have to hide your ‘lost’ cat so she doesn’t beg for their punch and cookies.
This is what could happen if you leave your layers.

* * *

Or you could venture out to shop for groceries and trick-or-treater candy, and there you could run into one of those groups of organic-only nuts that protest outside of chain grocery stores. You grocery-shop on Friday afternoons, and as often as not, there are protesters in masks blocking the sliding doors. Their masks are aliens, or else grotesquely disfigured humans. The idea is they got that way from eating genetically engineered foods. The idea to you is they got that way by paying a huge sum of money at the Halloween store; the money they somehow had left over from buying their certified organic dinners at the local co-op.
You make $17,800 a year. By your calculations, buying organic would put you about $3,480 in debt each December. However, there is never any arguing with masked and disfigured activists.
“Is a little debt worse than endangering your health and your children’s health?”
“If you can’t make sacrifices for the sake of your own body, what can you sacrifice for?”
and your favorite,
“We’re not protesting your decisions – stop being so touchy. We’re opposing Safeway’s support of corporate-run mega-farms.”
Fair enough, then direct your complaint to the system, the man, the bigwigs behind the desks at Safeway, the farming industry, and the massive population that has shoved subsistence farming off the map. Raise your voice and your hands and howl to the winds of capitalism. Go on a mass assassination spree of the heads of the Department of Agriculture and make jail your sacrifice for pure foods. Better yet, find the last crumb of unpopulated land, unquestionably in Siberia, and work the dirt with your unblackened hands until there sprouts a certified organic – tomato, or carrot, or potato.
You are not intelligent enough or well-read enough to debate your way through the sliding doors, yet you are angry enough, and you do debate, and as you begin talking, another masked crony inches between you and the stack of shopping baskets. ‘Fresh meat,’ you can imagine him whispering, his lips and breath hot under his three-eyed camouflage.
Every Friday afternoon.
You want cat food, spaghetti, lemonade, chicken broth, candy for the trick-or-treaters, eggs, and cheese. And cookies for the cat-finding crew. The shrouded radicals demand the reversal of population increase. There is no other way to feed 6.5 billion people. The earth is not outfitted for it. Your mind, woefully malnourished of statistics, stretches to touch logic. The closest it comes is to yell, “MURDERERS!” as you push your way through, for all the people - the additional people - all over the world who would die immediately if all the farmers on earth switched to organic.
The protesters are not used to being called murderers, or at least not in such a forceful tone. They fall to the sides, muttering. One man’s mask slides down and off his chin. Underneath, he has a scraggly goatee and darting deep-set brown eyes. His expression is akin to that of a dog caught peeing on a favorite houseplant; embarrassment, and regret at being unmasked.
If you leave your layers, you get all political without meaning to. Even going to the store means these thousands of new questions rolling around in your brain. Thousands of questions in addition to the one about how you’re going to hide your cat, if she has returned, from the office do-gooders. You keep going back to animals, who have natural limitations on their populations. Somehow you don’t have the intuition that limiting crops so they can be grown organically quite qualifies as a human limiting factor. Your cats’ limiting factor is your income; fourteen bowls of canned meat go down on the floor every day; no more, no less. No more cats than can be supported can live in the ecosystem that is your first four layers.

* * *

When you get home, you do a thorough examination of your place and your youngest cat is not present. As you check the corners of your bedroom, the rumples of the futon quilt, the rubber bump beneath the rug, the cracked bureau drawers, you find yourself at eye level with the beginning of the wallpaper pattern: the pointing index finger. You have always wondered exactly which shape began the pattern, in the leftmost bottommost corner, and now it seems that the index finger, accusing and quite 3-D from the cross-eyed closeness effect, is pointing directly at you.
The doorbell rings: Juanita, chronically early, even to the office at 8:00 a.m. You squat, paralyzed, imagining that you can hear a mew, or feel a velvet ear against your ankle, vibrating with purrs and whisker quiverings. Juanita edges into the living room as you rise to your feet. She sneaks a look around at your outer layer, scanning for cookies and/or secrets, for a word of welcome, even, or thanks.
Then there is the problem of small talk. What you know about Juanita consists solely of peeking through the crack in the cubicle wall to spy on her endless games of Solitaire. You know that she plays the cheating way, one card turned over at a time. You know that she picks her cuticles as she contemplates the screen, between mouse-clickings, and that she can wiggle her ears. She does it unconsciously as she strains to distinguish the footsteps of the boss from the footsteps of someone less threatening. Yet, your cat may or may not be missing, while Juanita’s broken fingertips reflexively go through the motions of cookie-grasping, and worse yet, you have to talk to her.
Your bare toes squeak on the linoleum, back and forth, inching backwards to hide the grocery bag which contains the cheap Oreos: two-for-one and sure, according to the grocery store aliens, to cause hideous disfigurements. You feign cookie bowl searching, gazing out the window to where kids are just beginning to emerge. Masked and suited, frilled and fluffed, painted thick as good cream and carrying hollow plastic pumpkins, they scan the houses for candy beacons.
Juanita clears her throat. Somewhere in her chest, she gurgles like a fish tank. Slowly, you fill a mug with cold water. As your knuckles soak with the overflow, you run through first phrases in your mind. Truth, bent truth, truth skewed beyond proportion. Your cat might be missing, she was eaten by the bulldog next door, you don’t have a cat. She fell onto the train tracks. She was hiding in the closet.
You hand the mug to Juanita and your eyes begin to water. Thinking of your kitten on the train tracks renders you incapable of speech.
“Oh, honey,” Juanita rasps – sincerely? – just as Molly, your 15-year-old tabby, cranes her neck gracefully over Juanita’s shoulder and takes a lick from her mug.
There is a pause as Juanita laboriously swallows her mouthful, reaching up as she does so to push Molly’s head away. “Your lost cat?” she questions, delicately.
“No,” you force out, your first word in what seems like ages. “Molly isn’t lost. My littlest kitten is lost, my Halloween colored one, my candy corn cat.” It comes out halting, just as halting as it looks on paper. As you speak, you are realizing a simple prospect for an excuse that you just blew. If your kitten wanders back, you could easily say that it is not your kitten, that it is another cat. But there are very few kittens who are colored like Halloween, and who would trigger the synapses of anyone’s brain after they heard the words ‘candy corn’.
“I see,” responds Juanita, and then there is another piercing, endless silence.
“I miss my kitty,” you blurt, just as you realize two things: one, your layers are mingling through the presence of Juanita in a terrible and disconcerting way; and two, your youngest kitten, your lost baby, is creeping along the fence outside, wearing dangling skeletons around her neck that dance on a stranger’s collar.
You clench your instinctual pointing finger with your other hand, and wheel around to set up a bowl of cookies for when everyone else arrives. From the corner of your eye, you follow your kitten’s delicate clumsy paws as they curl and tremble around the wooden fence posts. She has her head low and her ears back, and her spine fur is just beginning to lower itself.
The blinds, drawn to the sides, prevent you from being able to see what is following her. In a manner that you hope is nonchalant, you sidle over to the front door and crack it open, so if need be, your cat can sneak in unnoticed.
You barely touch the doorknob, but the door slams open. “Trick-or-treat!” chorus a troop of eight year olds, flanked by your smiling boss and her husband. Flustered, you hand a Snickers to your boss’s husband, and invite the children in. As the children stare at you and at each other, the Halloween smiles melt from their faces, slowly replaced by terror. “Let’s get out of here,” a tiny girl dressed as a bag of peanut butter M&M’s whispers, and you realize then how you are seen: the witch on the top story, the crazy lady who only talks to her cats – and maybe uses them as familiars to do her bidding! – who keeps her vines grown long, who wears scary shapeless print dresses, and who has at long last finalized her plan to cook Child Stew on Halloween.
The children sprint down the steps, screaming. The same M&M girl slips on the second-to-bottom stair and sprawls, face down, on the concrete. The children scream with renewed vigor. “The witch put a spell on you! The witch made you fall! The witch sent a cat for you to trip on! Run! RUN!”
And as you look, chest heaving from the humiliation and the anger, and, most of all, the shock of seeing yourself, suddenly, from the same view you might have had yourself if you were still eight, you find your kitten, squeezing and maneuvering her way from beneath the brown shoes with white M’s painted on. Mewing, she rubs her whiskered cheek on the wooden banister, looking, even to you, like a proud familiar basking in a job well done.
“Candy…” you call, half her name, smooth as silk. She pads noiselessly, claws retracted, up the stairs and into your arms. The children watch, still truly petrified, and your boss steps past you, closing your front door on their horrified faces, their suspended lower jaws.

* * *

After that, there is nothing you can say to your three guests, the only three who bothered to show up, the three who have now seen you unveiled, one of whom signs your paycheck and writes your evaluations. You have the inexplicable desire to out Juanita’s compulsive Solitaire playing, her sneaky methods of cheating the computer. Instead, you clutch your kitten. You stroke her slightly oily fur, and look into her green-gold eyes, pupils shrunken to slits from the overhead light.
“Well,” your boss begins, the more awkward for the protracted silence that follows. “I didn’t know that you were the neighborhood witch.” She says it lightly, but you have to turn your head so as not to meet her eyes. As you gaze around at your living room, the simple tapestries, the upright piano, the battery-powered mice and felt snakes, your last layer, you see that your cats are beginning to emerge from corners and from under furniture and from closets, meowing and coughing and slithering, silently, complaining, growling. Your kitten leaps from your arms to join them in their convergence.
“Maybe you should go,” you say to your guests, eyes still fixed, ashamed, on the floor and the paws that are padding across it.
“No, it’s okay!” your boss says. She is scared, or at least uneasy. You can see it. “We could all… find funny clothes, and give candy out to the trick-or-treaters together…”
There will be no more trick-or-treaters. Word spreads quickly among children scared of being eaten. Your boss must realize this in some way as she says it, because she stops.
“Maybe we should go,” she says.

09:50 - Monday, Dec. 06, 2004
food/associations
This is an unexpected thing for me to be writing about. Until I got to college, or, really, until I'd spent a year at college living not in the dorms and having to spend mostly my own money on food, I never realized how little food I could subsist on, and how thin it was possible for me to be. I always thought that 165 was my normal weight, and two or three meals-to-fill (eating until I wanted no more) was how I was going to be living, eating-wise, for the rest of my life. I never knew anything different, since my mom was an excellent cook, and even after the divorce, my dad, who cannot cook at all, ate out with me almost every night.
Since I learned, sophomore year, that eating my fill each day was overdrawing my allotted amount for food, and I learned that, also, it is possible for apartments not to give ANY of your security deposit money back, and consequently, for you to be minus 450 dollars you thought you had for food as well, I haven't been buying nearly as much food. Now that I have a better-paying job, I might be able to do so again, but I am in a pattern of feeling bad and punishing myself in some way if I go to the grocery store more than the specified number of times per week, or eat at a sandwich place or somewhere instead of just making my own food, often from eggs and garlic, or clementine tangerines.
Yesterday, there was a Thanksgiving dinner party at Nick's old roommate's house, about which I was ecstatic, because it meant I got to eat free turkey and mashed potatoes.... when we got there, the turkey wasn't ready, so we all stuffed ourselves with biscuits, mashed potatoes and gravy, noodles, and pie. After I ate, I felt something in my mind and body I'd never consciously felt before: the need to go out somewhere and exercise off the calories so I wouldn't gain weight. It actually made me feel sick. I had to leave. The second I got within a few blocks from my house, I felt better, but was it from the fresh air or from the knowledge that I had just walked a mile? I wanted to go back and eat turkey, but it was too far. I didn't end up eating dinner except for an apple. I felt I had eaten enough already.
The strange thing is that, growing up, I lived with a father who thought Calista Flockhart was the model for a perfect body size, and always, then, thought I was a litle overweight, or 'flabby' as he put it. I never cared, not for the 18 years I lived there. I have never had a problem eating as much as I liked. When I had food I wanted to eat, I ate it... simply. And it is simple. Eating is one of my favorite things. I love food. I love the different tastes it has and the amazing ways people can tweak that. I have always been more apt to spend money I have on food than clothes, or music, or even entertainment, even before I was out of my parents' house.
I have been hoping that I haven't gotten myself into a guilt pattern with food by not having the money to buy enough, so now when I do buy it, I associate with having lost control (of my finances, but my brain is associating it, now with actually eating). I weigh 138 pounds now. I have lost 27 pounds since last year. Last time I weighed this much, I was 15. My dad has been telling me that I look wonderful, better than I have since (surprise) I was 15.
Nick, however, like voluptuous women, and has been trying to stuff me with chocolates and fatty foods. I weigh the same amount as he does, but I'm five inches taller. As I said in the beginning, I did not know it was possible to be as thin as I am now, the age I am now.
The problem is, I kind of like it. The problem is, I kind of want to stay here. The problem is... I don't know if that's a problem.

 

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