Of Daisies and Rust

Everything about Minerva seemed special. Even the house she lived in was unlike the boxy homes that defined our neighborhood. It was the only house on the block to have a gated garden that began in the front and curved its way to the back, hugging the home with a lush arm of rosemary and thorns. The house was a tall, dark smudge on an otherwise Easter-colored street, but I loved it. Graced with stained glass eyes and a crown of spires, it was more flesh and bone than lath and plaster. This was a home where fairytales took inspiration, where toads might belch love songs, and trees grinned wicked smiles behind the backs of children.

Inside the belly of her house, Minerva and I sat on sofas covered with bruised velvet in rooms that glowed from the blush of glass lampshades. Her dad sang us songs about a tambourine man and fed us juice from pressed carrots that he served in chipped jelly jars. She told me there were mice in the garage. More than just mice, Minerva spoke of ghosts. She said there were spirits that traveled with her dad, that every family had them—even mine; they lived in the garden shed, slept inside cupboards, and liked to lick butter from their pointed fingertips.

Minerva and I lived five blocks away from each other in San Francisco’s Sunset District. She was named after a Roman goddess who sprang full-grown, fully armored from her father’s split skull. I always found this beautiful—to be birthed with steel and weapons, to be born prepared. Minerva ignored the warrior in her name, opting instead to dress far beneath her age in pleated skirts and prim sweaters. I was named after a 1960s film siren, Brigitte Bardot, a goddess herself, but one who was pushed into this world just like the rest of us. This was good, but not extraordinary. I wanted Minerva’s mythology.

We had started spending more time alone in her shed during the summer we both turned thirteen. It didn’t matter to me that the shed had been neglected. Ivy had worked like persistent fingers, creeping up the shack’s cinder block rib cage and claimed the structure as its own. Minerva’s father said ivy was a nuisance—a weed—but I thought it was a welcoming gesture from the garden, an acceptance.

The roof was made of corrugated metal and sang with authority when the rain spilled. There were no windows, allowing it to exist without the burden of vision, to be womb-like. My favorite thing about the shed was its door. Wooden and crooked, it bore the fingerprint of Minerva’s mother. The faded images of oversized daisies painted with cheap acrylics and fat brushes reminded me that Minerva had lost something important. Her mom died before she could finish it, well before the Pacific Ocean peeled it away in wet degrees. I asked her if her mom was a cupboard ghost. She looked at me with flat, black eyes and whispered, “No.” Still, it felt like her mom lingered.

The shed itself felt needy. Among the potting tables and stools, there lived scattered seeds, rusted rakes, and projects uncompleted. A broken rabbit hutch nestled in a corner, and inside sat a lonely baby shoe, a shoe exactly like the kind Minerva still wore: oily, black patent leather with a single strap and buckle. That shoe always caught my attention. In the red corners of my mind, I thought of Minerva as a baby living in that cage while I slept under her patchwork quilt, in the bed her father still tucked her into every night. Despite the confessional that the shed had become, I could never tell her how much I wanted to be in her skin.

While Minerva and I burned through the summer of ’85, the Bay Area became infected with disease and violence. Sex bloomed on the lips of writhing pop singers and gaunt women pushed up against streetlights to pay for the freebase that had stolen their discretion. My family and I lived in a two-bedroom house that had once been painted bright white with apple green trim but now resembled a rotten tooth in what should have been a pleasant smile. Just across the street stood shifting sand dunes covered in the fishy lace of seaweed. Seagulls pushed against walls of wind, crying for food, crying for a mate. Only the living room had a view of the beach as if the rest of the house couldn’t stand to look at its empty promise of pleasure. Ma and Dad spent most of their time in the basement, smoking crack out of filthy glass pipes until their pupils dilated into black planets and their tongues sprouted white scales. Sometimes I wouldn’t see them for days. When I did, Ma’s skin would be the color of old oyster shells, her fingertips longing to feed someone her fury. Me. Only me. On those days, it was best for me to read quietly in my room and wait for her storm to pass.

We never used the dining room, at least not to eat. Ma kept a bed tucked in the corner for nights when her brothers would stumble drunk through the front door, their knuckles bloody and their mouths full of bar room bravado. When those nights stretched into days, I would find myself climbing the hills to Minerva’s house. I knew her dad would feed me tomato sandwiches, lay heavy hands on my shoulders, and tell me how smart I was to avoid my family. I could sit with Minerva in the garden and hardly hear the seagulls scream at all.

During those walks, I would often see a man sitting on a tattered orange couch inside his garage. Even on that day in July when the temperature soared past ninety degrees, he sat on that couch—was swallowed by it, really—with a blanket over his knees and a fat grey cat by his side. A lot of men in my neighborhood looked like him, with strange ball-bearing heads and bruises that rose like cream. He was a young man, maybe thirty years old, but AIDS had manipulated that number into something closer to death than life. He’d smile at me, pull his cadaverous face into a grin, and give a little wave. Unlike some of the others, I wasn’t frightened of him, but for him. Sometimes he’d still be sitting there hours later when I walked home. I never understood what he was looking at—what he was waiting for—but I’d miss him on the days he wasn’t there. He was sick, but I thought of it as a sickness that had the ability to make men gentle. If something was going to feast on my body and leave me with little more than sharp angles and broken skin, I wanted to be something people could still love.

Although Minerva could see the blur of my house if she looked down from the top of her hill and squinted, she had only been inside once. It was early in the summer when my dog Misty had given birth to a litter of four wrinkled puppies: Teak, Breezy, Mo, and Mack. I had gushed on and on about the sweetness of their broad pit bull heads and the way they rolled around like young prizefighters. It was because Minerva wasn’t allowed to have pets that I continued to brag about how they liked to chew on toes and sleep in the warmth of sun puddles. The only animals at Minerva’s house were the caged rabbits that her dad raised for meat; Minerva knew not to love them. “Don’t even look at ’em, Bridgette,” was her steady, deadpan advice. “How can you stand it, Minerva? No way. I could never.” It was only when she thought of her mom and those rabbits that Minerva seemed to lose her shine.

I knew she wasn’t allowed inside my house. Minerva’s dad didn’t approve of my family—most parents in the neighborhood didn’t—yet I pressed on with the chatty pride of a new mother. It felt good to have something that she couldn’t, but I took it too far. The idea of fat bellies and wet noses proved too much for Minerva to resist, and as usual, Minerva proved too much for me.

“Come on, B,” Minerva said with a needy moan. “I won’t stay long. Don’t be such a daisy.”

I fiddled with the bells on my bracelet, hoping to distract her with something new and pretty. “Look what I made last night.” I grinned wide and shook my wrist in front of her small, pointed nose. “I can make you one, too. You’d like that, right?” I held my smile in place with clenched teeth and counterfeit cheer, but Minerva was not swayed.

“Such a daisy,” she said, her insult stinging. The corners of her eyes crinkled as the accusation left her mouth, and she realigned her petite frame into something that felt tall.

My hands fell to my sides with a quiet jingle. “You’re going to get us both in trouble, Minerva. Just let it go.”

“What do you mean both of us? When’s the last time you got in trouble for anything?”

Instinctively, I touched the tender spot of my skull where Ma had grabbed me this morning because I had been moving too slow. Ma had a bad temper that stuck to the skin and burned like boiled sugar. Her fists always seemed to move with a speed that countered my pace; the slower I moved, the quicker she became. Sometimes she was unbelievably fast.

“I don’t know, Minerva. Today’s not so good,” I said, shoving my hands inside my pockets, suddenly sick of hearing the incessant chime of my bracelet. “Your dad won’t like it.”

Minerva leaned in closer. I could smell the sugar on her breath from the strawberry gum she constantly chewed and snapped. A conspiracy was being born. With the soft, kitten-like voice she reserved for her father, Minerva touched her sticky lips to my ear and whispered, “We’re going.”

And we did go. My parents weren’t home, leaving me and Minerva free to sit among dead strawberry plants, throwing sticks to grateful puppies until the streetlights began to glow. When I saw her the next day, she looked the same: buckled shoes, a skirt that kissed her knees, and no sign that her father was anything like boiled sugar.

“Was everything okay when you got home?” I asked. The fairy bracelet I had made for her sat quietly in my pocket. “Your dad didn’t find out, did he?”

Minerva played with the yellow ribbon that had been plaited into her hair, and I caught a hint of the apple shampoo she favored. “Yeah, he knows.”

My skin suddenly felt hot, infected. “Oh my God, Minerva. What did he say?”

Minerva’s thin fingers, now bored with the braid, found their way to the zipper of my sweatshirt, and she moved it up and down its toothed path. Up and down. Up and down.

Annoyed with her distraction, I grabbed her hands and tried to focus her attention, “Minerva!”

Finally, she looked at me as if just noticing there was a body inside the shell. She cocked her head to the side and stared at me with unfamiliarity. I thought I saw something dark move behind her eyes, something swollen and full.

“Minerva, are you alright?”

“Huh? Yeah, yeah, of course, I’m okay. My dad’s not mad. He wants you to come over for dinner tonight. We’re having stew.”

“Are you sure everything’s okay?”

Whatever storm I thought I had seen had passed. Minerva grinned and bounced her finger off the tip of my nose in a gesture that was all at once girlish and grandmotherly. “Stop being such a daisy. You know Daddy loves you.”

The invitation to come to dinner that night felt like an obligation. A sour stomach held hands with my heart as I sat at the table in silence. It was too hot in the house. The windows seemed to close their eyes with weepy lids of condensation. Everything felt wet. I surveyed my fingers, peeling away what remained of my nails and shredding cuticles that had already begun to bleed. The familiar smell of rosemary mixed with the strong odor of cooked meat, and my stomach turned in protest. I tried not to think of the rabbits in the garden, of the blood-stained stump that grew in the shade like a poisonous mushroom, but the image of pink eyes and wounded wood remained in place.

Her dad set a bowl in front of me, cupped my chin with a calloused hand, and kissed my forehead. “You’re my girl, Bridgette.” Inside the bowl’s wide mouth simmered a pile of soft potatoes, chunky carrots, and meat the color of dead roses. My eyes found the leg bones, rising like ossified icebergs in an oily sea. I looked at Minerva hoping to find laughter on her lips, for a sign that this was all a joke: please, don’t make me eat the rabbit. Instead, she looked at some horizon line behind me, picked up a leg and began to work the meat, her lips lacquered with the animal’s fat. “Eat up,” her father said. With the flat of his hand, he rubbed small circles between my shoulder blades, giving me one final nudge towards obedience. I filled my heavy spoon with the fleshy broth and poured it down my throat, trying to find the same horizon line Minerva had fled to yet failing.

Two hours later, as Minerva’s father twisted her hair into the tight braids she preferred, I pushed the last cold piece of rabbit against the back of my tongue, cleaned my bowl, and stacked it neatly with the others beside the sink. Her father gave me an approving wink.

“That’s a good girl, Bridgette.”

“Thank you for dinner.” Chunks of rabbit floated in the waters of my stomach. I pinched my mouth closed, afraid that the animal could swim the channels of my throat and leak from my lips.

“Alright, let’s go, Bridgette. We need to have a talk.”

Looping an arm through my elbows like skaters on a frozen pond, he guided me up the staircase that groaned under his weight. We stepped over the threshold into his bedroom, a room I had yet to see despite the hours I had spent here.

“Sit down,” he said. His grin was all teeth and trust, but his skin had begun to flush a dangerous shade of red. He sat beside me, his thigh pressing against mine, and I could feel the heat of him through my jeans. He moved the hair from my shoulders and turned my body so that I was facing him.

“Look at me.”

My eyes fill with water. I should have never taken Minerva to see those puppies. The stretch of his punishment was too much. I wanted him to yell at me, to hit me and be done with it. I wanted him to reveal his anger as something recognizable, as something familiar.

“Bridgette,” he said, tilting my chin and letting my pooled tears slip free. “Bridgette, why are you crying? Did something happen at home?”

I didn’t understand what was going on, why he was talking to me as if he hadn’t made me sit at that table eating butchered rabbit and refusing to speak to me beyond commands.

“Honey, I know what it’s like to hurt. You’re a special girl, Bridgette. Do you know that? You have an old soul, and I think it’s beautiful. I think you’re beautiful.”

He held my face with his wide hands, smiling at me as if I were milk and honey—as if I were worthy of the words that fell like feathers from his mouth.

“I’ll always be here for you, Bridgette. You can always trust me. I know you, and I think you know me. You do, don’t you?”

He leaned in and kissed the corner of my mouth. He lingered there, dragging a thumb across my lower lip. Somewhere from outside, maybe inside, I heard the frantic thump of bird wings.

“Is this okay?”

I nodded because it was for a moment. He moved closer, his presence swallowing the room. There was no air that he hadn’t already tasted and expelled. His mouth was on mine, enormous and hot.

He stood quickly, the redness of his skin in full bloom. “Do you see what you do to me, Bridgette?” He bent over, placing his hands on his knees and trying to catch the breath I had stolen from him. Slowly, he moved closer to the ground to kneel before me, resting his head on my insufficient knees.

“I love you, Bridgette. I can’t stop it; I can’t. Please say you love me, too.” With his head on my thighs, he found my hands, wrapping his thick fingers around my wrists that seemed to have become birdlike, hollow. “I need you,” he said.

My skin was alive, fed from my panic and something that felt like pleasure. He had seen me—seen right through me. I thought I knew nothing of love, but here it was curled up at my feet. I had already disappointed him once, yet I thought I saw value in his gaze. He was here, giving me this moment and risking my rejection.

“Yes,” I said. “Yes, I love you.”

I left his room thinking that time had stood still like a sentry, waiting and watching as he transformed into something vulnerable for me. For me. I imagined that Minerva would be able to see the bright white light that surely radiated from my skin, my brilliant halo. But as I walked passed her to the front door, she just sat on the floor, her nose in a book, a loose smile playing across her lips. “G’night, Minerva. I’ll see you tomorrow?” She didn’t answer. She just wriggled her delicate fingers with a dismissal, and I felt the smile I had been practicing collapse.

I feel like it all began that night, but in truth, it had probably started long before. He started slipping a warm hand between the loose waistband of my jeans, dancing me around the kitchen, humming a song that had been born before me. He was sweet during those moments. “I love it when you wear your hair up, Bridgette.” He’d run his fingers up the length of my neck and melt the ice that had settled in my stomach. “Thank you,” was all I could say. Sometimes, though, his eyes would dilate, and his breathing would turn into something lumbering and primitive. When he got like that, he would move behind me and snake an arm under my shirt, pushing past the thin cotton of my bra to pinch my nipples and hear me cry out in pain and unfamiliar longing. His presence was always marked by tiny differences in the air—a drop in temperature, an increase in electricity. It was as if his loneliness had manifested into something that changed the atmosphere. I had once told him that I wanted my life to fill a book, but the longer he looked at me, the more I began to lose sight of what that meant. Maybe I would never be enough, but I wanted to be enough for him.

He was the force behind every protruding hip and every calculated flip of my hair. I watched him expand like a fire that was being continuously fed by my hand. Eventually, he needed more. Minerva and I had been painting a fresh mural of flowers in the shed when he called me into the house. She plunged her brush into a cup of bright yellow paint and simply said, “Go.” I found him lying on his bed shirtless, his face bloated with misery. I had never seen a man cry before. With his grief exposed, I suddenly felt small and incapable. He spread his arms wide, “Come lay down with me.” A cold panic moved through my veins. “Bridgette, you know I need you. Please.” I went to him with blood roaring in my ears, as the din of the world outside warped into something hollow and tuneless. I think I heard Minerva softly close her bedroom door, but I couldn’t trust the sound. A stiff body is much easier to move than a limp one, and I made his job easy. I noticed that he had stopped crying, but it didn’t seem to matter in the same way that nothing ever does. He rolled his weight on top of me, pushing air from my lungs that I hadn’t realized I’d been holding. I could smell the oil he used on his beard and imagined that in another life, I would come back as a well-traveled bridge in a small town, or maybe somebody’s favorite teacup. “Relax, I won’t hurt you.” He was wrong about that.

I opened my eyes to a world that had not changed much. There were still dusty books on shelves and coffee rings on tables. I still loved Minerva, but it was hard to be quiet with her; I needed noise. She stopped asking me to come over, but I no longer needed her invitation. My presence was an expectation. My folks still brought their chemical smell to our home, though Ma sometimes let me rest my head in her lap while she untangled my mess of curls. I think she had grown awfully tired that summer, too exhausted to see that I had become something different. I was moving through life with somebody’s hand inside me, controlling me with sudden stops and starts, bending me in awkward angles and severe degrees.

The summer continued to move along as if it were being dragged through honey. Minerva’s dad had stopped being careful with me, and it was getting harder to observe my reflection. I longed for his attention even though he often hurt me, even though I knew it was wrong. It somehow struck me as fitting that my first love would be something dirty and disfigured. He said he’d never met someone as special as me, but I began to have doubts. He could see my misgivings as if they were living creatures in the bed with us and reminded me that I had always wanted it this way. “Remember how you used to look at me? Remember when we used to dance together in the kitchen? I bet your dad never danced with you in your whole damn life. Am I right? Of course I’m fucking right.”

He could be a cruel man. He often twisted the thin skin that stretched over my ribcage or pressed his teeth into the soft pocket of flesh under my arm until I whimpered. The worst was listening to him cuddle with Minerva on his bed and read to her from a dog-eared copy of Charlotte’s Web. I’d sit outside his door and hear her giggle at the idea of a charming pig and a selfish rat. The room would always grow quiet, her dainty laugh replaced by the familiar sounds of her hungry father.

I missed Minerva. Our friendship had become something that had been left in the rain too long. We were rusted, useless to each other. I often felt that she looked at me like she looked at those rabbits, with a detachment that resisted my love for her. Yes, I still loved her. There were times in the shed when we would expose ourselves as the women we were not, looking for cupboard ghosts and dreaming of a life that spilled beyond the gates of her home, forever free and unconstrained. I couldn’t speak to her of the wolf I had found in her father. I couldn’t allow myself to think that, yes, yes, of course, she knew. Ignorance is a gift awarded to the young, and I took full advantage of it. Otherwise, I might think that she had chosen me for him. That she, like him, could smell the hopelessness in me—in my willingness to exchange the softest parts of me for what—for a love that depended upon my willingness to be quiet and yielding? A bitter taste lingered in my mouth; something burnt lived there. I wondered if I was real to anyone, or if my value was my insignificance. In my mind, I could see myself running rusted garden shears across my wrists, but this vision had holes. I was a coward.

It all stopped the way it began. He called me to his room, this time without sorrow or shame. Guilt had worked like bacteria, decomposing anything about me that had once been green and new. I had become nothing more than a girl on her belly, soaking his pillow with saliva and existing in a dream-state far away from the rattle of his breath.

The sharp squeak of the mattress snapped me back into my body as he pulled his weight from its form. “Atta girl, Bridgette. Now get yourself cleaned up.” He left me there, trying to remember who I had been three months ago and smelling like something feral. Alone, standing in front of the mirror that had been an anniversary gift to his now-dead wife, I forced myself to look at the intruder I had become. I ran a small hand over a hip that had just begun to curve, giving my waist the appearance of having been neatly molded into something slight and delicate. I noticed the soft blue bruise of a thumbprint blooming beneath my collarbone and frowned. More bruises scattered across my thighs like dark clouds full of rain, begging to release their watery weight. Stepping closer to my reflection, I inspected lips that didn’t belong to my face. He had coaxed something feminine out of them, but still, I hated the way they swelled as if I had gotten popped in the mouth for saying something stupid. I closed my eyes, squeezing until stars burst behind my lids, and pulled a fist full of hair from my useless head. I watched the gold threads dance towards the floor, no longer belonging to my body, no longer a part of me.

I walked home that day exhausted from his hands and crippled by what I had seen in his mirror, of what I had become. It had begun to rain, but my neighbor was still sitting in his usual spot. He seemed to have grown much older and the blankets had multiplied. He no longer waived, but lobbed his heavy, piebald head my way and fluttered his eyelids. I looked back up the hill to Minerva’s house. I had been wrong. The house was an eyesore. There was no wonderland.

I walked inside the tiny garage and sat at the feet of this semi-stranger who had watched my pilgrimages to and from Minerva’s house all summer. The sores in and around his mouth had broken open, making it difficult for him to speak. We sat in silence like that for a long time, watching the rain puddle in the streets and bounce off of unprotected shoulders.

“Does it hurt?” I asked, my back still pressed up against the couch, my eyes still watching the rain fall with greater urgency.

“Sometimes,” he said. “Sometimes I don’t remember what it’s like not to hurt.” He poked the back of my head with a finger as cold as marble. “What about you? Does it hurt?” I swiveled my neck, expecting to be confronted by his disgust, but only found kind eyes and a sad smile.

I let my eyes wander up the mountain of colorful afghans that failed to camouflage limbs that had wasted. He smelled like the mint leaves I used to bruise between my fingers, rubbing their oils behind my ears, playing at being a woman. Small white clouds of foam had collected in the corners of his mouth, and he winced as the cat left his lap to investigate my bracelet of bells.

“Can I ask you a question? You don’t have to answer if you don’t want to.” The cat settled herself on the narrow space of my thighs as I slipped off the bracelet that held its interest.

“Ask me anything,” he said.

I ran my fingers along the length of his cat, staring at the same street that I had traveled a hundred times with the eyes of a sleepwalker.

“Was it worth it? Was he worth it?” I heard a long sigh, his sour breath mixing with the cleanliness the rain had delivered.

“Nothing’s worth it, honey.”

Somewhere in the distance, I could hear the clicking of a relieved engine and the cry of a seagull. Despite the summer storm, there was a pliancy to the sky that I had not recognized before, and it struck me that this same blue expanse covered more than just my neighborhood of hills and disease. It covered dusty elephants in Africa and sunburnt men farming land in Oklahoma. It was the same sky that birthed stars every night, and somewhere beyond its horizon, it would soon hold this man who had every reason not to be kind but was, who didn’t have to hear me but might. I knew then that its fullness was a promise I could follow beyond the angry white caps of the Pacific and the salty taste of Minerva’s father. I knew that today, I would rest my troubles at the feet of this dying man and his fat grey cat.