Excerpt

“Rampion”

Anita Felicelli

October 18, 2018 
The following is from Anita Felicelli's collection, Love Songs For A Lost Continent. The collection follows Tamil-Americans exploring what it means to reinvent themselves while honoring the personal histories that shape them. Anita Felicelli is the winner of the 2016 Mary Roberts Rinehart Award, two Greater Bay Area Journalism Awards, and a recipient of a Puffin Foundation grant for poetry. Love Songs For A Lost Continent is her debut collection.

It was early spring in Paris and our yearlong efforts to get pregnant had failed. The fertility clinic tested Connall and the problem wasn’t his sperm, so that left me to measure my basal temperature, take pills, inject myself, explore homeopathic cures. Relax, the doctors said. Relax, my acupuncturist said. You’re wound too tight. I had always been tense, but I was pretty sure the problem was my eggs, or the lack of them, not the whorled knots in my shoulders. Nonetheless I rented us a Parisian apartment in the Latin Quarter, hopeful that the city of light and love would work its magic.

We decided to spend our first afternoon at the Pompidou. “The trees should be just starting to turn,” Connall said. As a landscape architect, he was always attuned to what was growing, even in the heart of a city. “Maybe we’ll catch some of the blossoms on our walk.”

At a corner market, I bought a baguette and a round of chevre, which Connall stored in his backpack. I tried not to bring it up, but after the third perambulator, I couldn’t contain myself. “Do you think it will work?” I asked.

“What?” He was looking down at his city map and I took his arm to keep him from bumping into other pedestrians.

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“The IVF.”

“Let’s not think about that. We’re not there yet,” he said. “Let’s just enjoy Paris.”

“I would so much like to have a tiny child.”

“Me, too, but let’s be patient.”

We arrived at the Pompidou, its splendor made up of hard metal bars and cold rainbow pipes and phallic glass tunnels in the midst of the elegant architecture of Paris. Connall insisted on seeing the entirety of the museum, for fear we would never be here again, so for what seemed like hours, I stood and stared at Yayoi Kusama’s obsessive dot works. So many dots, an ocean of dots, and a quiet chamber of mirrors and bliss that was teeming with candy-colored LED lights and reflections of them and reflections of reflections—on and on, through time forever.

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We emerged from that metal and glass behemoth into what we thought would be the vast light of that day, but the buttery light had been replaced with silver clouds and a fierce, howling wind. I turned on my phone and tried to provoke Connall by videotaping him. “You like it, don’t you,” I said gesturing at the Pompidou.

“It’s fantastic.”

“It’s a monstrosity,”

He put up his hand, so I spun around to find another subject through the lens. Far across the plaza by large white tubular structures, a group of vagrants played music on trashcan lids and drums. Their front woman, desiccated with thick platinum gold hair blowing around her face in the wind, was screeching The Police song “So Lonely.” One of the boys in the group was lighting scraps of paper on fire, letting them fly away on the wind.

“That’s right,” Connall said. “Shoot someone else.”

We walked toward the ragtag group. Connall took the baguette out of his backpack, tore off a hunk, and slathered cheese on the soft side with a plastic knife. The white of the bread caved so that there was nothing left of the soft insides, only the crust and the cheese. We stood a safe distance from the group and when they finished playing music, the woman pushed back her thick platinum hair. She looked like a fox, with luminous ice-blue eyes and a red furry face. As I approached, I said, “I’m sorry. I liked your song so much. Is it okay that I took this video?”

“We emerged from that metal and glass behemoth into what we thought would be the vast light of that day, but the buttery light had been replaced with silver clouds and a fierce, howling wind. I turned on my phone and tried to provoke Connall by videotaping him. “You like it, don’t you,” I said gesturing at the Pompidou.”

I played the video back for her and as she studied the screen, I studied her cheeks. They were draped in blazing red hair, her nose, smooth and wet. Her breath smelled dark like onions and root vegetables. It was impossible to tell her age; her hair up close was baby-fine and flax-bright like the palest part of a flame, but the smudged skin on her hands lay soft as worn suede.

“I’ll trade you,” the fox-faced woman said in English. “Seeds for that.” She gestured at the baguette.

“What kind of seeds?” Connall asked. He could never resist new seeds. He had built and grown a garden in the back of our house. Full of rarities, he would say, like our love. He wasn’t perfect, but he was so kind and good-looking, even among pessimists like me he could get away with his sunny disposition.

“Rampion,” the fox-faced woman said. She grinned and the inner rim of her lips disclosed her darkness, her needle-sharp teeth. “Try it, you’ll like it.”

Connall handed her the loaf in exchange for a small brown paper packet. The woman ripped into the baguette with her teeth. We turned and strolled toward the Seine. “Be sure to water it,” the woman called after us as her group resumed their trash can lid jamboree.

“Do you know if those seeds will translate to American soil?” I teased Connall.

Campanula rapunculus—I can make it take,” Connall said with his usual cockiness.

On the bridge, we paused to watch the sun sizzle near the horizon, turning the walls by the Seine, where people were eating ice creams, a warm pink. Connall handed me the packet of seeds while he fished for the apartment keys. I could have sworn the seeds vibrated in the packaging.

*

The doctor told us the IVF hadn’t worked. There would be no tiny baby, no smell of milk and powder, no petal soft skin, no first teeth. We drove home in silence and I trudged upstairs and crawled back into our large bed, flinching from the feel of the cold sheets against my skin. Outside the bedroom window, crows circled the sky. A breeze fluttered through the little green fans dangling from the gingko trees. The odor of garlic and cucumber blew off the rampion that Connall had planted. He held my hands in both of his as I cried. He didn’t cry, but the edges of his lips went hard and they stayed that way.

*

“We’ve got to get away from Dennis and Linda,” Connall said when he got a raise. Dennis and Linda Trueblood were our new neighbors. “They’re standing in front of their house trying to decide whether to put in AstroTurf.” He was shaking his head, deeply offended. “Who puts in AstroTurf?”

“And that Chihuahua. It’s always barking. All day, every day.”

“And little dogs live a long time.”

“They do?”

“Well, too long for us to live here next to it yapping anyway. We’ve always wanted to live by the ocean.”

“When California breaks away from the nation in an earthquake, people who live by the ocean will lose their homes.”

“We’ll float away. We’ll be our own island.”

“Hmmm. That could be all right.”

“He had built and grown a garden in the back of our house. Full of rarities, he would say, like our love. He wasn’t perfect, but he was so kind and good-looking, even among pessimists like me he could get away with his sunny disposition.”

Although we could not find an island, we bought a stone cottage by the Pacific where we would one day retire. In a burst of romanticism, Connall resolved to construct a stone tower in the backyard, a place where we could look out at the immense ocean, the better to imagine our adventures. We spent every weekend for months holed up in the cottage, away from our annoying neighbors, secluded from society, while he built the tower. I worked on the website for my online children’s bookstore on the cramped loveseat, my back to the ocean view. Next to the cottage, there was a second garden, blooming and giddy with the scent of roses and lilacs and salt. In one corner, a patch of transplanted rampion flourished.

Every weekend, seagulls alighted on the top layer of stone and their harsh cries sounded ever more distant as the tower reached towards the clouds. On slick black rocks jutting from the ocean, velvety brown otters sunned themselves, watching my husband and the other workers lay stone. Within a few months, the tower proved to be immense and imposing against the moody coastal sky. Three stories tall with a narrow interior staircase spiraling up the center of it like a warped spinal cord.

On the day that Connall set the last piece of limestone, he brought me out to sit at a teak garden bench beside the tower. “Here’s to you,” he said, pouring pink champagne into two flutes. Bees were buzzing, flecks of gold around the heliotrope.

“Me?”

“Yeah, you,”

“Couldn’t be.”

“Then who?”

We toasted.

The violet shadows of twilight crept up on the cottage and we walked out onto the beach. “It’s marvelous,” I said. Connall took my hand in his, and we walked across the sand.

“It’s a kind of consolation, isn’t it?” he said. “That we were lucky enough to find each other. Do you want to go for a swim?”

I shook my head no, and I could tell he was disappointed. I was no fun.

“All right, I’m going in.” He took off his clothes and ran across the hard-packed sand. He swam into the ocean. I could see the gleam of his muscular back in the moonlight, and the shimmer of the moon reflected in the dark water. Far from shore, he stopped and began waving at me. The sound of the waves crashing was monstrously loud. I wondered if he was saying something, and I waved back. He kept on waving. “Come back! I really don’t want to come in,” I shouted back at him, on the off chance he would hear it. Still the roar of the waves. I walked up to the edge of the water, the foam lapping my toes, squinting at Connall. He wouldn’t stop waving. Foam churned all around his head. My whole body stiffened—something was wrong. In a moment, he disappeared under a wave, and I waded into the ocean, and soon found myself waist-deep in the dark, icy waves. I swam to the spot where he’d been waving, but when I reached it, there was nothing to suggest what had caused his disappearance. I looked down, but only my own face looked back at me. I swam and swam, but I couldn’t find him.

*

Later, they found his body. They told me a flash rip current must have pulled him away further out into the ocean, that he must have drowned. No baby, no love, no life. I woke every day with my mind on fire and my body scarred and bruised. My hair turned white almost overnight. I didn’t bother to dye it. I stopped returning telephone calls. I stopped going to bars for drinks to catch up with friends. I wished for death that night in the water. Why hadn’t I just stayed out there?

I wanted to shout how does this work? to everyone I knew, but instead I did everything you are supposed to do when death comes. I notified everyone. I cremated Connall. I held a memorial service. His ashes sat in a metal urn on our coffee table. I never had the heart to scatter them.

*

“Hello!” shouted my neighbor Linda. “And how are we today?” She was standing next to the garden wall in her hot pink yoga pants on a stepladder, plucking nearly black avocados from the tree. It was many months after the funeral, but the funeral was still all I thought about.

“Fine, never better.” I was sitting at a bench by the koi pond watching three enormous koi swim round and round, their golden and crimson and ice-colored scales glimmering in the sun. Rampion had taken over the yard, intermingling with the sweet peas, parsley, sage, and marionberries. I remembered that in the months before his death Connall used to pull the little purple rampion flowers out by their roots so we could cook them in butter with other vegetables and reminisce about our trip to Paris. The hope we had, the fox-faced woman. So lonely.

“Well, if you need anything, don’t hesitate to ask,” Linda descended the stepladder with her wicker basket overflowing with avocados. What I needed was for her to stop talking to me. Every time I sat in my garden, she seemed to be climbing into her fruit trees to hunt persimmons, oranges, pomegranates. “Oh, and guess what!” she shouted. “Dennis and I are expecting.”

I tried to smile. “How lovely,” I said. Why them? Why not us? Who decides who gets to be happy?

“We’re having a barbecue to celebrate with the neighborhood association. Why don’t you come?”

I smiled and nodded. Linda climbed back down the ladder. The abundance of the garden—its shiny vulvar blossoms, its constant reminder of how easy reproduction is—taunted me. A menagerie of bars and gaudy flowers. I sat there for hours, but the sticky-sweet fragrance of jasmine and honeysuckle were choked by the rampion, and only grew more nauseating.

*

The barbecue was on a humid Sunday night. All the usual suspects were at the neighborhood community center. A woman artist whose paintings were all white canvases with white numbers on them. The professor who studied whether Kanye West was a feminist, and his husband, a flamboyant stockbroker. Soccer moms with blowouts and tech entrepreneur husbands I didn’t know. The elderly couple with matching prosthetic limbs. At most of these neighborhood get-togethers, the elderly couple would propose an hour of square dancing that concluded with them removing their limbs by the end of the night.

Children were eating in the corner and there were red balloons and giant blue paper letters on the wall spelling “CONGRATULATIONS.” I sidled up to the meringue plate.

“Those are for kids,” one of the little girls advised me as I reached for a meringue. She was wearing roller skates.

“I’m a kid at heart,” I said.

The little girl reached out with a black plastic fork and rapped my knuckles as I took a chocolate chip-flecked white meringue. I smiled politely and started eating. Suddenly I was surrounded by a mob of children with plastic forks, all pricking me with sharp tines. “Stop eating the kids’ cookies, stop eating the kids’ cookies,” they chanted. I looked up and a number of adults were staring at me. My cheeks were hot.

“Stop it,” I said. Quietly and then more loudly. Suddenly, I couldn’t take it anymore and I was shouting. “Stop, stop!” The professor rushed over and took control of the ringleader, the little girl with the glittery roller skates. Once she had been shunted away, the other children stopped. They walked backwards, still eyeing me. By then, my mascara was running. I went to the bathroom to fix it up. When I was done dabbing under my eyes with a cold paper towel, I went inside one of the stalls. I had been inside the stall, sitting on the toilet lid and waiting for my heart to stop beating so hard, when I heard two women come in, talking and laughing.

“You know why she was so weird about that, right?” asked one of the voices. It sounded familiar. I peeked through the crack between the metal door of the stall and its frame. It was Linda and one of the soccer moms.

“No what do you mean?”

“She can’t have kids. She and her husband tried for years,” Linda said, her voice dropping an octave, as she reapplied her hot pink lipstick.

“Oh, that’s so sad,”

“It is,” Linda said. “But I’m not sure what kind of mom she’d be, honestly. Can you see someone who is so fucking uncomfortable in her own skin taking care of a child? She’d probably starve it to death. And you should see how she looks at my belly. I told her she could rub it, and she wouldn’t.”

The other woman clucked. “God, yeah, she’s definitely hard to be around. Her husband was all right though. Rest in peace.”

“All right? I’d watch him any time—” Linda started to say. Someone opened the door.

“You ready, Linda? Time to cut the cake,” one of the neighbors said.

“The little girl reached out with a black plastic fork and rapped my knuckles as I took a chocolate chip-flecked white meringue. I smiled politely and started eating. Suddenly I was surrounded by a mob of children with plastic forks, all pricking me with sharp tines. “Stop eating the kids’ cookies, stop eating the kids’ cookies,” they chanted.”

When the women left, I stayed inside the metal stall, my palms pressed against the door. I stared at the nails that I’d painted lilac, my stubby nails, their cuticles peeling back, red and raw. My heart rate had not gone down.

I unlatched the stall and walked out into the main recreation room. People were laughing and stuffing their mouths with big hunks of a vanilla sheet cake with pink and blue fondant roses on top. Their mouths were smeared with white frosting and somebody had turned on happy fiddle music. The couple with the prosthetic limbs were already dancing. “Do-si-do, people!” Tiny white lights blinked around the mirrored room, a chamber of empty silver reflections and reflections of reflections that made my head spin. I was oozing tears.

“Can I get you some cake?” the artist asked as I staggered past her to return to the safety of my house, away from the sounds, the scarlet and turquoise and gold of that room, the smell of Chanel No. 5 and champagne and the tartness of the lemonade.

*

One night, not long after that, I heard a sound. It woke me, the sound of something scritch-scratching against stone. I got up from my four-poster bed and looked out the window. From that vantage, I could see the garden by moonlight, gleaming and bright. Dennis, in his pajamas, was straddling the wall with a wicker basket. He looked up at the house and I moved behind a velvet curtain. When he was satisfied that nobody was there, he threw the basket down and dropped with a soft thud into my flowerbed. He crept towards the rampion. He dropped to his knees and began yanking up the plants, working quickly and quietly. For about twenty minutes, he hovered over the plants, carefully pulling up the blue-violet flowers by the roots.

He stuffed the bounty into his basket, looked around, and ran back to the wall. He tossed the basket over and jumped a couple of times, finally getting a footing and throwing himself over the top. He was paunchy, more plainly so in his nightshirt than he was while wearing business clothes because the thin cloth failed to disguise his girth. I was surprised he could make it back over. He lingered at the top of the wall, panting, before dropping to the other side.

The next night I heard it again. The scritching. This time I pulled on a dressing gown and walked down. I wanted to give him a scare. I quietly opened the sliding glass door beside the garden. He was breathing heavily as he gathered the plants into the basket. He didn’t hear me at first. His tawny hair was sticking straight up atop his scalp like fur that had been petted the wrong way. I approached slowly. “Dennis,” I said as I came up to him.

He dropped the plant he had been pulling and blanched as he turned to me. “Oh, hi,” he said. “I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry.”

I stared at him. He looked vaguely pathetic, but I didn’t feel any pity. All I heard was She’d probably starve it to death. “Hungry?” I said.

He gave that weak weasel smile that people get when they fail to apprehend a situation and aren’t quite sure where they stand, when they think you might be joking, but you are deadly serious. “It’s Linda. She craves this stuff. She absolutely craves it.”

“Rampion?” I asked.

“God, it’s good. And you know how pregnant women are,” he said, shrugging. I wanted to stay no, I don’t know, but I still felt humiliated thinking of Linda and the soccer mom in the bathroom. The hair on the back of my neck in a ponytail was prickly. Fear and rage. “We would have asked, of course, but we didn’t want to bother you . . . after that party, you know?”

I thought about the fox-faced woman who had given us the seeds. About the way we had believed we would one day be parents and how romantic it had seemed, the rosy future that lay in front of us versus the one we had, filled with pills and injections and surgeries and so-called consolations that were not enough. “This is unacceptable,” I said. I felt like I had floated out of my body and was looking down at myself saying words I would not normally say.

Dennis was pale by moonlight. “I’m so sorry. What can we do? Come on, tell me. We’ll do anything.”

“Your baby, your first-born,” I said. “Give it to me.”

He laughed. “Good one,” he said. “All righty then, I’ll give it to you.” He kneeled down and put the plant he had dropped into the basket. “Only if we can have some of this stuff every night, though. Linda loves it.”

“Done,” I said. I pulled at the sash of my mauve dressing gown and swept back into the house and up the stairs. When I looked out my window, he was climbing back over the garden wall. After that, he came every night, leaving bald patches in the wide swath of rampion.

During the day I would avoid going outside when Linda was there, wobbling through her yard with her enormous distended belly. Night after night, Dennis took more and more of the rampion, leaving only a little bit of it, a few plants in the back. Fairness, I knew, had nothing to do with the reality of a situation. What was fair to them, was not what I thought was fair. I kept thinking about the supposed joke, the promise of a firstborn in exchange for an all-you-can-eat rampion buffet—it rattled around in my mind as Linda approached her due date, the sound of our words getting louder and more dissonant with each passing day.

*

After the baby was born, I could hear her cooing every day through the screen door while the nanny cleaned their house, but I did not visit. I knew that my absence, my failure to pay my respects and meet the baby, would lead to more gossip, but I couldn’t bring myself to visit, and several months went by. One afternoon, I could hear Linda screaming at the nanny, and the sharp sound of the baby screaming. A few minutes later, Linda arrived on my doorstep, bouncing the baby in her arms to keep her calm. She claimed the nanny had fallen ill and had to go home and wanted me to watch the baby. “Can you believe it? She abandoned us on date night!”

I nodded in faux-sympathy, but she mistook it.

“Thanks,” she said, and paused. I wondered if she was debating how much money to offer me. “You never go out anyway, right? So this will work out nicely.” I was about to change my mind, but she was already turning and stomping down the path. I could have said no, I suppose, but instead I was thinking about the agreement. I slipped on my flip-flops and followed her back to her house.

I had been inside the house once before with Connall. We’d privately mocked the blotchy pastel landscapes that looked like they belonged in a motel room, the sickly stench of synthetic plumeria, the expensive lime green curtains—lime green was trending that year. After Linda and Dennis left, I shuffled around the living room with the baby in my arms, feeding her from a bottle and remembering the looks Connall and I had shared about our neighbors’ tackiness.

“Fairness, I knew, had nothing to do with the reality of a situation. What was fair to them, was not what I thought was fair.”

The baby was six months old and already terribly alert. She smelled of spit up and milk, but underneath that newborn scent, I thought I could smell something abiding—the smell of rampion in spring. She had platinum gold hair— flax-bright like the palest part of a flame—and roses in her apple cheeks. Her eyes were black, beetle-black, stormy black, perplexingly so since both her parents had blue eyes. After I fed her formula, she fell deep into sleep in my arms. Her tiny delicate nostrils quivered with every breath. I turned on the television. A reality show was on. I started to think about why Dennis believed it was a joke, instead of a contract. Surely, they were not entitled to everything. Nobody is entitled to anything.

It happened so quickly, I hardly thought about it. I picked up the sleeping baby and nestled her in a car seat in the back of my car. It’s just a little drive, I told myself. I drove past the thick poisonous pink oleander in the center median of the highway and up through the mountains where Connall had crashed the car, and gradually wound around until I was sea level, driving along the gold-beige dunes at the coast. In a few miles, I pulled into the rough dirt driveway of the beach property.

In the many months since I’d been there, rampion had spread across the garden, plush and meandering over the rocks, over the alyssum, over the pansies, over the hyacinth, suffocating and burying everything within its reach like a sandstorm. “You’re home,” I said to the baby, whose eyes were fluttering open as I unbuckled her car seat. I swaddled her in a yellow cotton blanket and put the bag of her things over my shoulder. We trundled to the ocean. Bright green-blue surf crashed against the jagged rocks and the horizon line burned with the setting sun.

We climbed the steep staircase of the tower. The steps were made of stone blocks. I held the baby tightly as I climbed the narrow steps, and each step seemed taller than the last, and the curving walls seemed suffocating as they closed in on me. The bag kept falling off my shoulder and I kept heaving it back onto my shoulder. I was panting and breathless by the time I reached the porthole at the top landing, far above the ground. I looked down at the baby. She was awake, but quiet. She watched my face intently with alert, luminous eyes. I unlatched the door to the roof. “Look,” I said. We looked out into the ocean. I remembered that sometimes dolphins migrated past, their silvery backs shining for a moment before they submerged under the dark ocean waves. But now I could not see dolphins, only the faraway boats.

“See the ships? We could take one of those ships and travel all around the world.” The baby gazed back at me and puckered her lips a few times. I thought of the quips Connall would have made if he were here. I sat cross-legged on the stone surface, cradling her and feeding her the rest of the formula from her bottle. In the corner were a few dead succulents in terra cotta pots that he had probably bought to make the rooftop nicer for me. I resolved to revive them, now that everything was, for the moment, as it should be.

As the baby suckled at the bottle, I could almost smell Connall beside me, the salty, musky smell of him after gardening, the worn softness of his flannel shirt on my arm, even the warmth of his hand. The baby surveyed the sky through the turrets and ran tiny hot, sweaty fingers over my toes—I did not know that babies were so damp, all of them water babies. She tickled my toes, but I stayed perfectly still and content, feeling those delicate fingers and how little she knew of what the world held.

In a few moments, violet-tinged stars started to prick the sky, a misty halo circled the full moon. The distant hum of the highway came as if through cotton. Gulls were crying. Otters squealed and the waves were hard crashing. The baby whimpered. It was well after 8 pm. I was searching through my purse for her pacifier when I came upon a compact. It fell open in my hand.

By the light of the moon, I could see it was not my familiar face looking back at me. There was a redness to my cheeks, a hairiness, my white hair looked platinum blond. I touched my face softly, marveling at my suede covered cheeks. And the smell—garlic and cucumber—the smell of rampion was all around me, or perhaps emanating from me.

The coastal summer air was still warm. Minutes passed, or perhaps hours. The baby was sleeping, her eyelashes invisible and her tiny nostrils quivering almost imperceptibly as she breathed in and out. I took off my sweater and wrapped it around the baby to keep her warm in the night.

Later, the high-pitched whine of sirens would sound, and my skin would be ice-cold. I would see a peach-pink blot just above the bit of ocean between the turrets. After the police took the baby back to her parents, after they told me that the Truebloods would not press charges, I would sit in the tower alone for hours, gazing out at the cold grey waters, the thick soft whiteness of fog hanging over everything like wet cotton or memories. I would light the scraps of paper in my purse with a lighter and fling the little flaming beacons out towards the ocean on the wind. Some of them would float away, on and on over the water, and others would lie flickering and burning on the stone. Smoke would surround me as the day wore on and still I would sit there alone.

But in that moment, the baby gurgled in a deep sleep and I was looking up into a million points of light.

__________________________________

From Love Songs For A Lost Continent. Used with permission of Stillhouse Press. Copyright © 2018 by Anita Felicelli.




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