M in the abstract, p.1

M in the Abstract, page 1


M in the Abstract

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M in the Abstract



  For W.



  As Mary rises from sleep, shadowy forms drift around her room. They circle her small bed, moving lazily, the silhouettes of spineless creatures. She opens her eyes slightly, taking in the sight of the shades swirling above and around her. As always, she has the sensation of lying at the bottom of a vast aquarium while creatures dark and nameless whirl slowly around her.

  “Go away,” she says wearily and the shadows begin to break their ceaseless spinning. One of them, a squat, ghost-like creature with two staring holes where eyes should be, drifts down to her. “Not you, Inky,” she murmurs. Lying on her side, she raises one arm slightly. In response, the shadow drifts under it, resting against her white t-shirt like a teddy bear. As she wakes more fully, the featureless shades dissipate, their bodies fading away like wind-blown smoke. Black wisps curl within the spaces the shadows once occupied until a final gust blows the last scraps away. Within minutes, she feels the thing under her arm begin to lose solidity. As it disappears completely, she coils up and tries not to move.

  When she can stand the stillness no longer, she stretches, emerging from her cotton cocoon an inch at a time until she is fully uncovered, a slender form in underwear and a t-shirt. Still lying on her side, her skewed vision takes in a blank wall and a row of cardboard boxes. Most are labeled with black marker in her small, tight handwriting: “clothes,” “books,” “school.” Others are unmarked.

  The one under the bed

  She surveys her room, noting with relief that the bed sheet she had hastily tacked up as a makeshift curtain the night before is still in place.

  Thank God

  Her eyes flick to the simple hook-and-eye lock that is attached to her door. It remains closed, meaning that, once again, she has prevented her mother from seeing the hated shadows.

  Thank God, thank God

  Removing the lock was her final act before leaving their old suburban home. She was worried that the move wouldn’t happen, that she and her mother would have to stay in the house that had always been her home. In the end, when the last of their belongings was loaded up in the moving van, she skulked upstairs with a ballpoint pen, using it to twist the pieces of the lock from the door and its frame.

  Getting the lock in place in their new home had been an even greater challenge. Her nervous fingers weren’t used to such work and she had no tools. But the job was helped by a preexisting hole in the door frame, and she persisted until the task was done. After all, there was no question of having it in place before she slept. She needed to be absolutely certain that her mother could not open the door from the outside and peer in.

  Now Mary lifts her head from the bed, pulling herself up until she is resting on one skinny elbow. Swinging her bare feet down to the thin carpet, she reaches for a pair of loose gray pajama pants that she had left crumpled on the floor the night before. Pulling them on, she stands but does not move further. Anxiety cinches up her stomach. She squeezes her eyes shut, trying to block out everything around her.

  A large black t-shirt drapes over her slim frame, falling from the curves of her breasts. To the constant aggravation of her mother, she does her best to conceal herself, to hide her body from the eyes of passersby. She feels cursed. Cursed with a head full of sadness and a body that betrays her at every turn, drawing unwanted attention by day and blossoming silhouettes at night.

  “Mary?” her mother calls from the kitchen. The tightness in Mary’s belly increases; she’d hoped her mother would still be asleep.

  Not yet; just a bit longer

  Almost immediately, she replies to her own thoughts.

  You’ll have to go pee some time

  Mary takes a moment, tries to compose herself, bracing for this first contact of the day. Please please please Mom keep it together

  She shivers, the thought of being the focus of her mother’s attention more than she can bear.

  If Daddy were still around, she wouldn’t need to talk to me so much

  Mary’s thoughts drift to the box under the bed, the final, hidden remains of her former life with her father, memories of memories.

  Gathering what strength she has, Mary unlatches the lock, lifting the little silver hook from its resting place within the metal eye. Reaching a shaking hand down, she grasps the ornate, battered doorknob. Despite many coats of paint, it still turns easily in her hand.

  At the slight sound of the knob turning, her mother calls out, “Posey, are you up?”

  Hate that name

  “Yeah,” Mary answers, her voice thin and echoing in the empty living room that separates the kitchen from the bedrooms.

  Curse having to go pee

  There’s no way around it; to get to the bathroom, she has to go through the kitchen. She pads slowly forward.

  “Did you sleep ok, Sweetie?” her mother asks. A cup of coffee and a bit of toast sit before her on the small kitchen table by the window. A weak morning light leaks in and a harsh overhead bulb beats straight down. Boxes, opened and unopened, litter the floor. Her mother is surrounded by piles of crumpled newspaper that flow over every surface like drifts of gray snow. The toaster rests, shining silver, on the counter. The white plastic coffeemaker is also out, as are some plates, mugs, bowls, and cutlery. Her mother, wrapped in a fuzzy, powder blue housecoat, stares hopefully up at her daughter with tired eyes and smiles. Mary turns her face away. Her mother says, “Sorry about the mess. Did you sleep okay?”

  Mary shrugs, moving forward, hoping to make it to the bathroom before anything else is said.

  “Well, here we are in our new digs. A couple of girls on our own,” her mother continues.

  We didn’t have to be alone

  “I know it’s not what you’re used to, but we have to make the best of it, Posey.” Her mother says, and waits, hoping for a reaction. Getting none, she adds, “Sweetie, please, don’t just stand there. Say something.”

  Mary mumbles, “I like it okay” and, surprisingly, she actually means it. She felt ambivalent about their old home in the sprawl on the edge of town. Unlike this venerably decrepit brownstone apartment, their old house had been just one of a seemingly limitless number of identical houses, featureless boxes lining curving streets with pretty names. The roads all seemed to twist back on themselves. She began to forget the details of her old home the moment she left it.

  She can’t pin down exactly what it is about this new place. It’s something that comes from inside, beneath the plaster and brick and layers of paint. She can almost feel a century’s worth of occupants sliding along the edges of the windows and hiding in the corners of the rooms.

  Ghosts are better than real people, anyway

  “Posey? Hello? You’re just staring into nowhere.”

  “Oh … I was just thinking, I guess.”

  “That’s okay.” Her mother stands and wraps her arms around her daughter’s thin waist. Mary bristles. “Oh, you’re so good, Posey. I know you don’t think so, but I don’t know what I’d do without you.”

  Leave me alone

  Mary can hear a strain coming into her mother’s voice, can see tears starting down her face. “You’ve been so great. You’re such a wonderful girl …” Her voice trails off as the crying takes over. She sobs, clutching her daughter and shaking. The emotion, so close, hits Mary like a blow. She closes her eyes, standing awkwardly in her mother’s embrace, wishing she were a million miles away.

  “I have to go to the bathroom, Mom.”

  “Oh, I’m sorry, Sweetie. You go. I’ll make you breakfast.” She wipes her eyes. “Would you like some toast and tea? I don’t think we brought any orange juice with us.”

Mary hurries into the small, windowless bathroom and locks the door.

  She looks at herself in the mirror, which has a long crack running diagonally across its surface, fracturing her reflection. Her face is a pale, childlike oval with long dark hair spilling down on either side. She turns away, pulls down her pants, and drops heavily on the toilet. She places her elbows on her knees and her face in her hands. She can feel her own tears coming now, and is painfully aware of the fact that if she allows herself to cry, the break in her concentration will open the door to the shadows. They are never far away, and now they boil inside her, ready to escape like steam from a kettle.

  Why can’t you all just leave me alone?

  As her tears come, some mental splinter that keeps the shadows locked away inside her is removed and the small room explodes, filling silently with drifting black forms. They are black and abstract, larval shadows out of a child’s nightmare. She sighs heavily, both horrified and yet oddly relieved to have them out of her. It’s a wearying battle to keep them compressed within herself.


  She lifts her head to look for Inky, the strange little ghost of a shadow, the only one that she doesn’t mind seeing, but he isn’t there. Instead, the silhouette of something like a three-foot-long caterpillar floats across her field of vision. She puts her tear-streaked cheeks into the bowl of her hands.

  You’re horrible

  She cries and cries until she feels the shadows melting away.



  Later, kneeling in her room, Mary lifts the flaps on a cardboard box. She reaches in and pulls out a handful of clothing and sets it gently aside. She repeats the movement until the box is empty, the pile of clothes growing higher beside her. She leans back on her heels to stretch her back and glances out her bedroom window. The view is slightly warped, the glass rippled with age. On the far side of the street, a row of brick houses and towering maple trees glow in the late summer sun. She can’t help but stare. As her eyes move along the tableau beyond her window, the strange sensation she felt earlier returns. It flows up her spine, sending tingles to the nape of her neck, to that delicate place where her dark hair grows thin and wispy. It’s a chill, but not of fear. She can’t find the words.

  I guess I like it right here, right now, alone, quiet

  She stares at the last unopened box , marked “Books.”.

  Or almost the last box

  She had delayed opening the box of books , leaving it to the end, knowing what she’ll feel when she reaches inside with a wavering, loving hand to remove the contents. She leans forward and draws the box toward her. She pulls the flaps gently back and stares into its open mouth. It is full of her father’s books, precious volumes kept since his youth.

  Her memories of her father are obscured by time, but still she holds them dear. He was a gentle man, quiet, somewhat distant. She was just starting school when he left.

  When mom drove him away

  When I did

  She is certain that everything was better when he was there, that everything was right. Even if there was something wrong with her, he would know what to do. Didn’t fathers always know? She remembers him lifting her onto his lap.

  With chapter books on top and picture books layered below, the box is a geological relic, moving back through time the deeper she goes. A paperback novel rests on the very top, A Wrinkle in Time. She reaches in to pull out a handful of books: Matilda, Elidor, Shiloh. Each volume sends a charge through her body. Her breath catches when she comes to her father’s copy of The Hobbit. She opens up the dusty cover, knowing that she will see her father’s name, penciled in his childhood hand.


  She runs her fingers over it, feeling the slight depression the pencil made so many years ago. She brings the book up to her face, breathing in the musty scent of the coarse, aged pages.

  If only Mom hadn’t been so mean about getting rid of all of his things …

  The picture books hit her hardest, the names so familiar to her, Ferdinand, Thidwick, Wormbog. Through a haze of time, she remembers her father reading them to her, a comforting memory from her earliest recollections.

  He sat me on his lap and read this to me, over and over …

  She reaches in and pulls out a battered copy of Corduroy.

  The broken little bear

  Mary never reads the picture books anymore but she can’t bear to part with them. “Why keep all of those old things?” her mother had asked when they were packing, but Mary can’t pass up any chance, no matter how oblique, of being near to her father.

  “Which outfit looks better?” her mother asks, appearing suddenly in the door. Mary quickly shuts the book, hiding the telltale handwriting of her father. Her mother holds up first a navy dress, then a sky-blue blouse and white skirt.

  Mary takes a moment to compose herself. “They both look fine to me, Mom.”

  Or maybe they’re both ugly. I don’t know

  Exasperated, her mother pleads, “Please, for once in your life, behave like a girl and take an interest in clothes. Look again. Which of these says: ‘I’d like to buy some clothes from this woman and give her a big fat commission.’”

  Just pick one and she’ll leave


  “The skirt and shirt, I guess.”

  “That’s what I thought. See, you have an eye for these things if you try. And it’s not a shirt, it’s a blouse or top. I’m going to train you yet. And I’m going to be getting an employee discount, too, so we can get you some clothes for your new school.”

  I don’t want new clothes

  It is an old battle, this critique of Mary’s clothing and dress sense, with no ground given or gained on either side. Their eyes meet for a moment, both trying to convince the other with silent argument until Mary gives in and looks away.

  “Take an interest in your appearance!” her mother implores as she walks back to her room. “First impressions count a lot!”

  At her old private school …

  Daddy’s gone

  … she had worn a uniform and didn’t have to decide what to wear. The thought of school clothes has been nibbling away at the back of her mind and now it chews through to the fore. Anxiety builds within her as she thinks about going to her new school. Her mother returns, leans against the door frame, and says, “At least get your hair cut and let me buy you a new outfit, something with color for once.” Shoulder-length, center-parted, and near-black, Mary’s hair has long been a source of contention.

  “I don’t want different stuff,” Mary mumbles.

  “Of course not! You want to dress like a boy or one of those godawful Goth kids.”

  “I’m not a Goth,” she replies, frustrated.

  Just be invisible

  “Oh, I know you’re not a Goth, Sweetie. But this is the time in your life when you should be going out with friends and meeting boys and going to parties. I just think it’s a tragedy that you don’t at least try to make friends. I don’t even mind if you take a little drink, as long as you don’t overdo it. ”

  “I don’t want to do any of that.”

  Not with what’s inside me

  Her mother waits, sighing. With effort, she kneels down to get face to face with her daughter. “Posey, Sweetie, can I ask you a serious question?” Mary looks away.

  No no no no no

  “Are you a lesbian?”


  “It’s okay with me if you are. It’s honestly fine, Sweetie. The man who used to color my hair, he was gay. And just look how well that Ellen DeGeneres has done for herself. And that other blonde she goes with, too.”

  “I’m not a lesbian, Mom,” Mary says, a rare note of anger and aggravation in her voice. She looks over to see her mother’s earnest face, but she can’t look for long. The feeling is too much; it stirs up the shadows, making them squirm like animals waking from sleep. She struggles to keep everything contained within.


  She repeats the wor
d to herself, her private chant.

  Away … away … away …

  “Oh, Sweetie, I just worry about you. You know you can talk to me about anything, right?” She reaches one arm out, touching Mary’s back. Mary recoils as contact is made but her mother does not relent. “Without your father’s money coming in, we’re a couple of girls against the world now, so we have to stick together, okay?”

  “Sure.” Mary turns back to her books, twisting slightly so as to break away from her mother’s touch.

  Her mother’s voice takes on a serious tone. “This is a real opportunity for both of us to start over. No one will know you at your new school. They won’t know that you had such a hard time making friends at your old school. You can start fresh, make some friends. Will you at least try?”






  Mary works silently at the business of unpacking her old life and placing it in the new. Her room is side by side with her mother’s and, through the thin wall that divides them, she can hear the crackling sound of a clock radio tuned to an A.M. station.

  She glances up at her own alarm clock, resting on the bedside table: 4:00P.M. Stiffly, she rises to her feet, edges out the door, and turns to peek into the other bedroom. Her mother is leaning over the bed, her back to Mary, humming. She moves a nametag over various outfits, looking to find the best match to the cream background and blue lettering of the tag, which reads “Barbara.”

  No one calls her that

  Mary contemplates inquiring about the choice but quickly changes her mind. “Mom, I’m going out for a bit,” she says quietly.

  “Oh, okay, Sweetie,” her mother says, not turning from the task at hand. “You have your key?”


  “All right. Don’t get lost.”

  “I won’t.” Mary heads toward the door that leads down the narrow stairs to the main entrance. Despite the warmth of the day, she grabs an old suede jacket, scuffed and brown as earth, that was once her father’s. She had found it while preparing to move and had claimed it as her own, thereby saving it from the great purge of her father’s belongings. She shrugs it on and leaves her mother to her business.

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