On my twentieth birthday, I bought myself an ax. This was the best gift I got
in a decade. Before I saw it, shining on the wall of the hardware store like a
lover made from steel and wood, I'd given up completely on the birthday
On my nineteenth, my mother had kicked me out of the house.
On my eighteenth, I had a party of two people, and after an hour, both claimed
allergies, and went home, sneezing.
On my seventeenth, I made myself a chocolate cake, but since I didn't really
want to eat it, stirred bug poison in with the mix. It rose beautifully, the
best ever, and when I took it out of the oven, a perfect brown dome, I just
circled the pan for a few hours, breathing in that warm buttery air. Some ants
ate the crumbs on the counter and died.
On my sixteenth, my aunt sent me a beautiful scarlet silk dress, which smelled
and felt as delicate as the inside of a wrist. Stroking it in my lap, I sifted
through the phone book, finally picking out the name of a woman who lived at an
address with 16s in it. Then I mailed the dress to her. Red is not my color.
On my fifteenth, fourteenth, thirteenth, twelfth, and eleventh birthdays, my
mother and I went shopping, and each year, by the end, one of us was in tears of
frustration because I didn't like anything, and I said I really didn't want
anything, except, maybe, a new math workbook. You had to send away for those.
They came from a big number barn in the South. My mother shook her head; she
refused, flat-out, to buy me math supplies for my birthday, so finally we just
put the money in the bank instead.
The year of my tenth birthday was when my father got sick, and that's when I
started to quit.
I'd always loved the sound of pianos, so I signed up for lessons and took them
for six weeks, and at the end of six weeks we had a recital. I wore a dress and
played a minuet and my two hands were doing two different things at the same
time and when it was over I drank juice and got hugged and the melody crooned
inside my head. I walked my piano teacher to her car, and she smiled at me,
proud. The sky clamped down. I lowered my voice: Listen, I said, urgent. You are
never, ever to set foot near this house again.
Her eyebrows pulled in, puzzled. Mona? she asked. What?
Thanks, I said. But this is the end of the line.
I told my mother it was too bad, wasn't it, that the one piano teacher was
leaving our small town of no opportunity to become a rock star in the big city.
Her eyes widened and she picked up the phone and my heart started pounding, but
to my huge relief the piano teacher's machine picked up and my mother's message
was vague, something like: Good luck and wow! and we wish you all the best.
Three weeks later, they ran into each other at the market. What they talked
about, I have no idea.
I took dance class ten times, and on the afternoon of my first leap, donated my
ballet shoes to charity. I had one boyfriend and within two months had hardened
into a statue in bed. I ran track like a shooting star and shot myself straight
out of orbit.
I quit dessert to see if I could do itof course I could; I quit breathing one
evening until my lungs overruled; I quit touching my skin, sleeping with both
hands under the pillow. When no one was home, I tied ropes around the piano, so
that it would take me thirty minutes with scissors to get back to that minuet.
Then I hid all the scissors.
I did not stop knocking on wood, which I did all the time, as a way to seal each
quit into roots and bark; listen: I tell the woodlook at what I'm doing here.
Mark this down. Notice.
No piano. No dessert. No track. Nothing. I am in love with stopping.
It's a fine art, when you think about it. To quit well requires an intuitive
sense of beauty; you have to feel the moment of turn, right when desire makes an
appearance, here is the instant to be severed, whack, this is the moment where
quitting is ripe as a peach turning sweet on the vine: snap, the cord is
cracked, peach falls to the floor, black and silver with flies.
I had one boyfriend. He was distracted most of the time but we stood in his
front doorway on a warm summer night and his lips moved over my skin like a
string quartet and I could feel that peach ready to shake off the tree.
I quit going to the movies.
I quit my job at the local diner when the chef kept going on and on about what a
good runner I'd been.
I quit egg salad.
I quit flipping through atlases.
I'd long quit the idea of living away from home when, on that nineteenth
birthday, my mother threw me out of the house. She closed the town tourist
office that she owned and ran, came home early, and said: Mona, happy birthday,
my present to you is this. Putting her hands on my shoulders, she marched me out
the front door, and stood me on the lawn.
I love you, she said, but you are too old to live here.
But I love it here, I said.
Her hair blew around in the air. You're lying, she said, and what's worse is
that you don't even know it.
I wasn't sure if she was adamant or just a lot of talk until she rolled my bed
into the front hallway. My father, confused, just sidled around the sloppy
pillow and comforter, and for two nights, I dreamt in the space where wall
nearly met wall. On the second morning, I woke, went to the bathroom, came back,
and found the bed was gone again. And the front door was open. My mother stood
in the doorway, her back to me, shoulders lifting and lowering from laughter at
the sight of it, covers rumpled, standing in the middle of the front lawn like a
So I'll sleep out there then, I said, heading toward it.
She caught me in her arms and held me close. I could feel the laughter, warm in
her arms and her chest.
I went apartment hunting that Saturday. My mother was off at work, but before I
left, my father called to me from the living room. He was feeling feverish, and
lay on the couch, a washcloth sprawled on his forehead like the limp flag of a
defeated country. Central heating, he advised. Do you need anything? I asked,
but he shook his head. And Mona, he said, make sure you get a place with a
toilet that flushes. I nodded. I brought him a glass of water before I left.
The whole idea of moving made me nervous, so I kept company with the number 19
as I walked around town by myself. 19: the third centered hexagonal number. A
prime. The amount of time alive of my chin, my toes, my brain. I wandered
through the tree-lined streets, to the edge of town where the gray ribbon of
highway dressed the hills in the distance like a lumpy yellow gift. I did pass a
few for rent signs, but the apartment I finally chose was only three blocks from
my parents' house, sparkled with color, came with a toilet so powerful it could
flush socks, and had an address that I liked: 9119.
The day I moved in, I placed my furniture pretty much where it had been at home.
My bed, formerly grayish from the dimmed atmosphere of my parents' house, was
already picking up its old pink tones. I hadn't seen it pink for nine years, and
it looked like the color ads in newspapers that retain a steely quality of
black-and-white even though they're newly splotched with reds and blues.
I called my mother when the phone was hooked up.
I'm here, I said. What now?
She was eating something crunchy. Decorate, she told me. Have a party.
The blank walls loomed white and empty. I ran through the rooms and said my name
in each one.
Mona, I told the kitchen.
Mona, I whispered into the hall closet.
When it hit eleven o'clock, I put myself into the bed I'd slept in my entire
life, in a room I'd never slept in, ever, and switched off the lights. The
shadows made moving dark spirits on the walls, and I reached over to the potted
tree my mother had given me as a housewarming present, and knocked on the trunk.
I knocked and knocked. I didn't knock just a few times, I knocked maybe fifty.
One hundred knocks. More knocks. One hundred and fifty. More. I stopped and then
something felt wrong, my stomach felt wrong, so I knocked some more.
The new place held its own around me, learning. This is me, I wanted to tell it.
Hello. This is me protecting the world.
I knocked until midnight. I'd finish and then go back for more. This is how I
imagine drugs are. You close in on the wood, pull in your breath, and you want
to get it just right and your whole body is taut, breath held, tight with
getting it just right and awaiting the releasesssswhich lasts about five
seconds and when it's over it's not right again yet, more, you need to go back.
Just one more time. Just one more time and I'll get it exactly right this time
and be done for the rest of my life.
Once I was all settled in, and each drawer had a purpose, and the bathroom was
well-stocked with toilet paper and window cleaner, I invited my mother over for
My father sent his apologies, but didn't come with her; he was feeling off
again; this happened. I served turkey sandwiches using the same brands of
mayonnaise, mustard, and bread that my mother bought. After we ate, she brought
a bag of cherries from her purse, and asked if I wanted to initiate the
apartment by spitting cherry pits out the window. I said no thanks. Years ago,
we used to go into their backyard in summertime and perch on the grass and spit
cherry pits as far as we could. My mother's spits were badly aimed and
ricocheted off to the left; my father was the better spitter, but my learning
curve was sharp and I watched him close as those reddish ovals went flying.
After he got sick, I did some spitting by myself, which was not very fun, and
spit with my mother, which was not very challenging, and once I got him to join
me and for some reason he breathed in too quick and the pit went backward and
got lodged in his throat. Cherry pits are small, and so it was just three or
four seconds of that thick labyrinth breathing but enough to scare us both into
shaking. I stopped popping whole cherries in my mouth and took to biting down to
pit and eating around that. My father cut his food into tiny pieces.
Before she left 9119, my mother put those cherries, bright as blood cells, on
the counter, took out a camera, and snapped some photos of the rooms to show my
I had sex with that one boyfriend. Once. Twice. All at his place. His skin was a
buoyant ship over mine, and he kissed silver into the back of my neck, and was
fine with my insistence on having lights ON at all times. I like to see what's
happening, I explained. Cool, he said, picking at his elbow. After the third
time, when we were just starting to get the hang of it, I came home one morning
to my new empty apartment; I checked my messages to see if anyone had died while
I was out in the world having sex but no one had or at least it was unreported
so I sat on the couch and kept a knock going on the side table when I thought of
how his eyelashes made a simple black rim when he looked down.
The clock said noon so I went into the kitchen and opened the refrigerator but
the food inside looked too complicated and I peered into the cupboards but I
didn't want turkey soup, or garbanzo beans, or tuna, and I wandered into the
bathroom and without even really thinking about it unwrapped the spare package
of soap that I kept in the cabinet beneath the sink.
I bought the same brand my mother did. A bright white bar, rocking on its back,
friendly. I brought it to the living room couch, and held it for a while,
smelling it, and there was a knife sitting on the side table from the previous
day's apple, which seemed convenient, and after a few minutes of just holding
and smelling, I picked up the knife, balanced the bar on the arm of the couch,
sawed off a portion, set it sailing in my mouth, and bit down.
Slide! Slip! It careened around my tongue. Gave like chocolate under my teeth. I
cut another piece. My mouth crammed with froth. Mmm. I cut again. My hand
slipped. I steadied the knife, cut again.
I'd chewed half the bar before I realized that it tasted strange, that the
feeling it left in my mouth was not right, that there was something about the
swallowing part that was wrong. By then it was making me gag and I went to the
bathroom where the mirror revealed lather gathered around lip corners in
clusters. Sticking the remains of the bar in the shower, I gulped glass after
glass of water, spitting up foam into the sink, and the rest of the day I
thought very little of the boyfriend, and instead wandered the rooms, burping
clean burps, evaluating how badly I felt: Should I just relax? Should I get my
When I woke up the next morning, slightly dizzy but not dead, I stumbled into
the shower and stood in the spray: meek, naked, distant. I used the straight
bitten end of the soap to clean myself, but before I put it back on its shelf, I
took one mildly interested nibble. The smell slammed back through me. In an
instant, my stomach heaved up and I crouched down, water sticking in my eyes,
and threw up down the drain, all whiteness and foam, soap rushing in waves back
Then I took that remaining bar, complete with the paneled markings of my teeth,
and dumped it into the trash.
I couldn't use soap for months after thathad to wash my hands with shampoo. A
week or so later, when I next saw the boyfriend, he took his hand up my shirt
and clicked my bra, releasing my breasts, but I stepped away and told him no.
Peach fell off the tree, dead. He blinked; oh, he said, okay. If I had any
doubts, if I felt the warmth rising when he touched the corner of my lips with
the tip of his finger, when he kissed the nape of my neck, turning my entire
back into perforation, I just excused myself, went into the bathroom and washed
my hands. He used the same brand of soap I did, and the smell did the trick
right away. I left his house before midnight, underpants wet, stomach roiling,
knocking every sidewalk tree. We broke up about three weeks later. He kept
saying he was sorry. I held my clean fingers to my nose, nodded.
Copyright © 2000 Aimee Bender.
All rights reserved.