Poetry + Praise of the divine and the Feminine

Caustic Notions

“Hey. Hey, kid. Kid, wake up.” I opened my eyes from the top bunk. The small, narrow room was dim with faint morning light. Cousin Devin shook my shoulder again, then bent low to shake my sister awake. Mom was long gone for work. We overslept again, late for Mrs. Kirkland’s seventh grade classroom. Devin left the room after we sprung from the sheets to yank on our red plaid uniforms hanging from the bed posts. When we were ready, he drove us to school. Uncle Mick or Aunt Carol had already come and gone by then, backing out of the driveway when we didn’t bound out of the sliding glass door like a pair of anxious mutts as soon as they pulled into the driveway. We usually had about five or ten seconds to get outside before they drove away, assuming we were probably out sick for the day. They didn’t have time to wait for two adolescent girls who overslept. 

On mornings when no one showed up at all, one of Devin’s roommates would find us perched on the loveseat, staring through the window well after the first bell rang two miles away, still waiting like silent strangers watching for a cancelled bus. The housemate, dressed in their pajamas, would load us in their car and quietly drop us off. 

We hadn’t always shared a house with my cousin. It was supposed to be a temporary arrangement. Devin and his two or three housemates were all in their twenties, and we shared their kitchen. They kept their side of the house sealed off by a hollow-core door next to the refrigerator. We never went through that door, even after the temporary arrangement stretched into two years. 

In our tiny sitting room, Mom jammed a rack of clothes covered in cat hair behind the heavy, wooly arm chair that doubled as Jasmine’s scratching post. She had a full closet in her room, and she used almost all of the closet space in the bedroom I shared with my sister. What did we need closet space for? We cycled through the same four sets of uniforms all week long, our white polos growing dingy with sweat, our navy blazers pilled and frayed at the hems, our once-white canvas shoes gaping at each toe like a missing eye. 

Some nights Devin came to our side of the house and sat cross-legged on the carpet to chat with me and my sister about life. About people. About his best friend’s tragic death in high school. While he talked, I captured the fleas bouncing from the carpet like stray poppy seeds and crushed them between my thumbnail and fingers, one at a time. At twenty-seven, Devin seemed to eschew adulthood, but he was the wisest person we knew. Kurt Cobain was larger than life, even after he died, but Cousin Devin loomed larger than Kurt Cobain. Devin dropped out of school, sang in a punk band called Caustic Notions, and kept a dozen coin-fed arcade games in his living room, a digital battleground behind our bedroom wall. He wore shorts and a polo to the office every day, and dyed his hair green at least once. 

Sometimes my friends came over, but they called their moms for a ride home soon after they arrived. “Well, because there’s no food here,” they murmured into the phone, their hands cupped around the receiver like so many gossip circles. No, you don’t understand, I wanted to yell. I used to have my own bedroom. I didn’t have to share a bathroom with my mom - we had two and a half. We had a whole kitchen all to ourselves. 

After my friends went home, I tried to prove to God, or whoever was secretly watching my mortification, that we did too have food. We did, if I stole from Devin and his housemates. 

I took leftovers from the fridge, a sleeve of crackers from the cupboard, an It’s-It ice cream sandwich from the freezer, which was surprisingly unsatisfying. I took a bottle of beer, just once, into the bathroom, and wound up pouring it all down the sink after tasting it. The first time I took food, I stuffed it into a small black purse with a lipstick mirror embedded under the magnetic flap. I slung it over my shoulder and walked to the park down the street, pretending I was on my way to meet F-R-I-E-N-D-S at the Central Perk coffeehouse. The fancy Saratoga neighborhood was overrun by stray cats, and they followed me in a tight V formation, like backup dancers on a runway stage. As I turned the corner they peeled off in singles and pairs. I imagined Phoebe and Monica waiting for me at the coffeehouse, and complimenting my little black purse as soon as I walked in, while Rachel served us cappuccinos and we sipped warm jazz notes floating in the air around us.

Instead, I ate alone on the patchy grass, a sad picnic among transient men camped out in the bushes. I watched myself take hateful bites in the little lipstick mirror, my reflection contorting and distorting as I willed face to become pretty, hating myself for perhaps the first time. I didn’t even pray for forgiveness. But I was sorry.

I was finishing homework on our coffee table when I heard an insistent, desperate mewling through the screen door. Outside, I searched the bushes and eventually located a tiny, week-old black kitten in a shallow hole, screaming for its mother. I had never heard a kitten yell so loudly, and so persistently. Without hesitation, I scooped up the kitten, my heart beating wildly. Devin was in the kitchen when I came inside with the tiny creature still yelling its head off. I held the kitten up towards Devin like a miniature Simba, like a live offering. “Well. It’s yours now,” Devin sighed. “Hold it close to your chest like this, so it can hear your heartbeat. It will calm down eventually.” I did as I was told, unacquainted with nurturing a thing. The kitten calmed, but only for a moment. For the next several months, the kitten made our lives hell. 

We bottle-fed him formula and we called him Baby, and he was a brat. He peed in the dryer. He peed in the toaster. He locked himself in the refrigerator somehow on two different occasions, startling whoever happened to open the door for a refreshment. He was mean to Jasmine, our other cat. And then he had kittens. 

“Oh,” Mom said. “I guess I was never very good at telling a boy cat from a girl cat.”

Tell me about it, our boy cat Jasmine seemed to glare from the top of the loveseat. 

After the two newborn kittens were mostly weaned, Baby took off like the feral, deadbeat mom she really was, and we never saw her again.

The tensions in the house crackled like an electrical fire. Obviously we weren’t going anywhere soon. There were volume wars between our Must See TV Thursdays and whatever was on the Twenty-somethings’ television. None of us wanted us to be there. I was reading The Diary of Anne Frank in school, and I groaned through the descriptions of tight quarters and the corrosive spats between the families squeezed together in the Annex. There seemed to be no escape.

Still. I thought a lot about apologizing to Devin. I thought maybe someday it would just sort of come up in conversation, naturally, without need for preamble or theatrics. Maybe we’d laugh about it. I’d pay him back ten-fold, with sacks and sacks of groceries, and bygones would be gone. 

But then I got in trouble for stealing a condom from a grocery store on a dare, just so a Mean Girl could put it on her cat’s tail as a joke, and that incident revealed my penchant for pilfered cigarettes. I begged to go back to Idaho to live with Dad. At night, I crouched in the corner of our bedroom, listening to The Cranberries and R.E.M. on my discman, trying to make myself smaller and smaller. To disappear, this was my ultimate wish. So I was frequently dazzled by a kaleidoscope of pills in the palm of my hand, those gleaming candy-colored jewels snatched in two’s and three’s from any medicine cabinet I could open with discretion. Would it be painless and numbing, this slipping away, or would I writhe with stomach cramps before choking on death? But after my sister was diagnosed with epilepsy, money was even tighter, food was even more scarce, and to draw attention to myself felt sickeningly misplaced and lavish; a dollop of caviar on a cracker topped with Easy Cheese. I flushed the pills. Sorry would have to wait for mellower, more lucrative times. 

But towards the end of our eighth grade year, our oldest cousin, Kerri, passed away from a very sudden illness. It was confusing and senseless, and none of us ever got over it, maybe Devin most of all. He faded to gray during those first few weeks and months, at times almost disappearing right in front of us, half-ghost. His flesh nearly blinking out like technicolor pixels in one of his arcade games. The day his sister died, I really lost two cousins, at least for a while. One gone entirely, one never the same. I felt so foolish after all those months of wishing myself dead, now seeing what death had done to our family, everyone’s eyes downcast, a sob at the back of every throat, lodged like a trapped word clawing its way out.

When we finally moved out of that temporary arrangement, I sat in a square of morning sunlight, clipping my toenails on the carpet in our condo in Scotts Valley. And the previous two years barely seemed real to me anymore, like they happened to someone else. Like they could possibly be forgotten. 

We buried Uncle Mick twenty-five years later, in a grave next to Cousin Kerri’s. Devin gave the eulogy while wearing his customary shorts and polo combination. I hadn’t seen him in over ten years. He described every detail of his childhood experiences with stunning clarity, and everyone marveled at this memory while he recalled episodes of his life like they happened last month. I think some of us were a little surprised to learn that he was present all that time, cognizant of his surroundings, even if he seemed adrift in thought or another means of escape. 

It was a busy afternoon. I had a plane to catch when the funeral was over.

It has never felt like the right time to say I’m sorry.


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Grace Over My Grocery Basket