“Blood Ties” – Fiction by Diana Clarke

Flower of Blood - Odilon Redon, 1895
Flower of Blood – Odilon Redon, 1895

On one level, Diana Clarke‘s “Blood Ties” (from our Fall 2014 Issue) is a coming-of-age story about an adolescent Jewish girl in New York City. But bubbling below the surface there’s also darkness and mystery and sex– and, of course, blood– all rushing headlong toward an unforgettable conclusion.

{ X }

I CRUMPLE MY FINGERS AS THE CLERK APPROACHES, hiding the red crusted in my nail beds. I can smell the iron, but the clerk doesn’t even turn her head. She’s too focused on an errant coat three rows away. Its unrumpledness signals that it does not belong in the sale room, any more than I belong on the main floor. She approaches the coat, barcode scanner already raised like a torch or a gun, then tags the thick green fabric and drags it away, sedated. Without the weight and darkness of the coat, the retired summer clothes that are past shopping season but still appropriate for the weather outside seem to list from their hangers toward the light. They are a swarm of fireflies, they are road dust rising, they are a dandelion head diffused.

​I rub my palms together, pinch my fingertips, watch my menstrual blood flake to the floor where it becomes invisible. I can never bring myself to wash it off, not when I know they’ll refuse to touch me later for the fear of it. In my neighborhood, Yiddish is like a curtain we draw between us and the rest of the world—keeps us warm in winter, and dark the rest of the year. My mother doesn’t even speak it well, but her gestures are so Jewish that from far away you wouldn’t know it. We moved here three years ago, and in one more year I’m leaving, but for the meantime what I have is not to wash. Rebellion comes in all kinds.

​When I was a child, my mother’s friend Julia would sit at the kitchen table, hair piled on her head and bare shoulders shaking with laughter, remembering how the two of them used to ride the subways, how their bodies learned to bleed together, and how when they did neither one of them wore anything to stop it. “It was the eighties,” Julia would say, turning to me. Years of sun had turned her brown in the deepest part of her chest. “The subways were just us and the homeless people, and even the homeless people sat at the other end of the car.” My mother always shushed her with half a heart.

​I would go back to my room after and imagine the wetness between their legs, how it slicked them then dried till it stuck, how they would have to peel their pants away or shower still wearing them.

​My mother married a man; I don’t know if she ever wanted any other kind, but I do know that she covered her head for him, once he’d gone, and to my knowledge no one but me has seen her scalp since—and even I’ve only snuck a few glimpses through a crack in the bathroom door. I don’t blame him for leaving; I blame him for his optimism in the first place. When I come home she’ll ask how my day was, and I will not mention the sale room, or the department store, or anything about Manhattan, which upsets her. But I try to save up stories for her from the subway, which I know she misses. It’s not that she can’t ride anymore, only that she doesn’t.

​If I’m by myself I prefer to walk back over the Manhattan Bridge and follow Flatbush past the hot steam of Trinidadian doubles shops until Brooklyn starts to look like the suburbs—tall sedate houses each standing disarmingly alone—even if it never ceases to smell like the city. I walk this part slower, always hoping that my eye will catch on whatever quality it is that changes, why it is that my mother can be here with ease.

​The quease of the island settles in my gut. My body in its bloat does not want gossamer fabrics, but this free afternoon is too rare to squander. I gather a host of blouses in varied pale shades, and one dress with a zipper up the side. In the fitting room I spend a long time just holding the clothing against me. Their hems flit like small insects in the stream of the air conditioner. All my little hairs raise like antennae. I wish I could see in the dark.

​I slide a creamy sleeveless shirt on and it skims my stomach. The muscles of my abdomen recoil at the foreign contact, at the pressure I might only be imagining. I can’t stand to wear it anymore; my skin feels heavy with sweat against the light fabric. But once I’ve taken it off I can’t let it go, and instead I ball it up like bad underwear, crumpling it in my fist and stuffing it into my back pocket. I walk out of the fitting room like it’s nothing, and the woman at the door takes the pile of whipped-cream clothing without looking my way.

​On the subway back to Midwood, the blouse seems to expand in my pocket like a wing. The train hurtles over the bridge. Maybe I should have bought something for my mother; even after three years, she does not know quite how to wear the Flatbush uniform. On her, the sweatpant skirts and snoods always sit wonky, as if they know something in her flesh resents their clinging—or maybe I’m just projecting, but it’s true she doesn’t send me to yeshiva and that the locals don’t approve. It’s true that if she did I wouldn’t understand a word of what was being said.

​“How was the ride?” she asks when I walk in. I’m not sure what she does all day besides sit and think; I’m not sure just what about this she expected to be an escape.

​“I’ll tell you in a minute!” I run to the bathroom to switch out my tampon. I never remember to bring extras. But before I can fill myself up again, the bloody stump swinging between my fingers, a long fast shit slides out. I can’t help taking a peek at it, swimming in the bloody bowl, before I flush.

​My father was a long slow shitter. When I was little and didn’t know how to hold it, I would howl and prance outside the bathroom door, pressing my hand between my legs to stop the stabbing pains that crawled from my groin into my stomach. As soon as he left, I’d rush into the bathroom, swollen with the rich mineral smell of his bowels. I recoiled because I knew I should, but a part of me liked the healthy animal stench.

​The bathroom’s been much cleaner since he left, and not just because we’ve moved. The old place was in Tribeca, in a part of town I knew both of them used to love. They liked to talk especially at parties with their friends about how they’d swept metal filings from the floor when they moved in, the first residential tenants after the factory closed. About the wilder parties they used to have, that left paint spattered on the ceiling. By the time I was old enough to listen they just drank wine on the floor again, like teenagers. It hurt them so much to see the restaurants crawl down Church Street, to see the cheap sushi shop open up on their corner when Chinatown was only a few blocks away. But it hurts me to remember the feeling of standing on the bridge over Laight Street at night, sidewalk transported into the air—to where the wind was, the rush and flow of traffic down the West Side Highway, the solitude and sweeping cold that made every headlight a buoy, marking a piece of my heart as it got pulled away.

​Dad left because of Julia. I’m not really clear, though, if it was the closeness between her and my mother—a sisterhood without the chastening influence of blood relation—or something that Julia and my father did, a hurt bigger than blood relation could help my mother stand. My parents never spoke to me about it, of course, but I sensed the tension when Julia’s name arose. She used to watch me when my parents were out, but she hasn’t been to see us since Mom and I moved to Brooklyn, though I know she and my mother meet up sometimes, and I haven’t even talked to Dad. I know he’s still in the city, because he would never go anywhere else, not for good. His gallery connections are all here, his friends, even if watching the neighborhood he knew change around him made him dry up with bitterness.​

My father is not a handsome man, too skinny and a little stooped, with what he liked to call “a touch of the shtetl” in him no matter how stiff his jeans, how dark his tattoos. He and my mother were great in conversation, but they never looked like they belonged together, standing side by side. Even now, coming back into the kitchen, I am struck by my mother’s beauty, though her shorn hair and baggy skirt do a good job of hiding it. Her beauty is static, one meant for lying down and being looked at, one that gets lost in the doing. The clothes she wears now—she says they’re just easier. Not to be asked anything or looked at funny when leaving the house, and it doesn’t matter if she stains them with clay. She still calls herself a potter, but I haven’t seen her sit still long enough to throw in ages, even if she says she came here for the quiet and the space to work. My impression is that she’s here because it’s easier than admitting to wearing a disguise.

​“How was the ride?” she asks again.

​“Fine, quick.” I grasp for something to tell her, feeling bad for reading the whole way back, for not having some news. Maybe this is what it feels like to be a journalist, disappointing people over and over again. But for once my mother is not waiting on me; she has news of her own.

​“Put these on the table,” she says, handing me a stack of dishes. “We’re having a guest.” It’s been a year since anyone came over for dinner; my school friends mostly live in Manhattan, so that’s where we hang out, and my mother doesn’t have friends of her own in Flatbush either. The last people to sit at the table who weren’t one of us were the rabbi and his wife who my mother, in a fit of goodwill and desperation, invited for a meal. She was in madness for three days before, boiling every pot and scrubbing every surface, kashering as she went, then ruining it all the next afternoon by bringing home tacos from the Mexican place a few blocks away.​

Julia comes in from the back room, her hands covered in gluey clay. I’d forgotten she was a potter too. I’d forgotten—

​“Hello my dear.” Julia smiles slow before crossing to kiss me on both cheeks, holding her caking hands away from her body, so that while she’s kissing me I have the sensation of two grey pigeons hovering close behind. “Sorry we didn’t get to tell you. I called your mom up this afternoon, we hadn’t seen each other in ages and I just thought, why not?”

​I’m amazed at the ease with which she draws close to me and pulls away. I wish I’d had more time to examine her. She’s six years older than when she saw me last, barely pubescent; I wonder how I must look to her. Julia is a little more wrinkled around the eyes, but that doesn’t change how beautiful she is.

​My mother and Julia pull vegetables from the fridge, chopping them into piles of pure pigment. When I was small my mother would lift me up over the cutting board so I could see the palette she was cooking with, before it all browned in the heat. It was years before I realized her talk of art didn’t mean she was an artist, though it’s still what I tell my friends at school. An eccentric mother is better than a mother who’s a failure.

​By the time we sit around the table two hours later, we’re all caught up—on the travel Julia’s doing, her residency in Hamburg, the book she’s editing. I look to detect a hint of tension between her and my mother—why they let one another go for so long. I wonder if Julia still sees my father, or talks to him. But there’s no tension; my mother’s face is almost slack with relief that this is real and Julia is back, that proof of her old life exists—other than me.

​We feast on pans of roasted vegetables, on chicken legs with crackling skin. In the low light, our lips shining with chicken fat, my mother and Julia and I look like we belong in a magazine. We grin across the table at each other, making mocking pouts that suggest we know how silly it all is, but sucking in our cheekbones just the same—lingering long enough over our own reflections in the window—to make clear that this is what we all really want. Julia’s eyes catch mine, and stay there. So we’ve both noticed how much I’ve grown up.

​“Want a glass of wine, honey?” She turns to my mother. “Lily, she can have a glass of wine, right?” My mother’s eyes flit between her and me.

​“I don’t think we’ve got any, but—” From somewhere in a kitchen cabinet my mother retrieves a bottle of brandy. It’s more than half empty, but there’s still plenty left for generous pours all around. And even though it’s my mother offering, I hesitate before taking the glass she gives me. This feels unnatural. But as we raise our glasses for a cheers, there’s a low throb between my legs, and a shiver crawls from my chest up into my throat. I’m in.

​“Honey, I know this is a horrible question, but I’ve gotta ask: do you know where you’re gonna be next year, what you’re doing?” I can feel the dinner sinking low in my belly, stretching it. I suck in before I reply.

​“I’m still waiting to hear. I want to be in the city, I think—or else far away. Honestly I don’t know. And they don’t tell you until March or April.”

​“Or what you want to study, anyway? And Lily, what’re you going to do once she goes, way out here in Midwood? Honestly I still don’t understand why you needed to be here of all places. Sure, let Ivan have Manhattan, but there are plenty of other parts of Brooklyn that aren’t so…conservative.”

​My mother cringes. “Julia, it’s space to work. And think, and breathe. A place without so many memories. And here I can pass if I want to.” My mother grew up Orthodox, in Yonkers. Never anything as religious as the people out here, but I think she’s comforted by the framework of our neighbors’ lives, even if it’s not one she fits in, or wants to.

​“I’m thinking of studying anthropology. Maybe photography, too.”

​“She likes looking,” my mother volunteers. I’m surprised at her accuracy.

​“What do you like to look at?” asks Julia.

​Instead of answering, I excuse myself from the table, saying I have homework to do, suddenly angry and hot in a way I don’t understand. I don’t like her asking me this—asking us, probing into our lives after she’s been away, after she wasn’t here when we needed her. Thin tears like boiled water fill up my eyes; I’m angry at my father too, and for the first time. For not talking, not explaining a single thing to me, for leaving me alone with my mother, who doesn’t know how to. And if I can trust the reviews I read online, he’s doing fine. ​

​When I get to my room I shut the door and pull the shirt from my back pocket. It’s crumpled beyond saving without steam, a wing with the bones all broken. That doesn’t stop me from yanking it over my head and trying to smooth the fabric in the mirror, enjoying the press of my hand over my abdomen, pushing the creases out, pushing my belly in. I lift the shirt to inspect my stomach; it feels taut and bloated, but looks soft.

​I stand in front of the mirror for a long time, listening to the clatter of dishes being loaded and the repeated suck-and-thud of the refrigerator door that signals dinner is over. My mother and Julia are talking in the kitchen, but their voices are too low for me to make out any words. There’s none of the earlier laughter, but in the end Julia will be staying; I hear creaking and bounce as my mother unfolds the sofa. It’s a long subway ride back into the city at the best of times, and after ten when the trains run local, Manhattan can feel as far away as Hamburg. The difference is I’ve never been to Hamburg, so I can’t even imagine it.

​Someone knocks; it’s Julia, which I can tell from how she waits for me to respond. My mother always barges in after the lightest of taps, like she’s afraid that if she gives me a chance to answer I’ll say no. Julia stands in the doorway for a moment, unsure for the first time I’ve ever seen. Her cleavage is paler than I remember, like she doesn’t spend so much time in the sun anymore. But from the way Julia closes the door, slow and firm, I understand at last why she is here again, and what had so troubled my father. I am shocked by how cool and clear her gaze is, and I do not want his protection.

​Julia’s hand slides under the weightless shirt and against my ribs, and we are silent, breathing together. I lose everything that is not the dumb naked want of her, the numb shiver spreading from my chest. It is all I can do to stand still with the way my heart is beating. It’s not so much that I feel childish as that I instinctively know she is eminently capable—that I must let her lead. And when I come the pulse of my womb forces the last of the blood out, onto the sheets and into Julia’s mouth. Her head emerges from between my legs, dripping and grinning. She wipes my blood from her mouth with the back of her hand and moves in to kiss me. I taste myself between her teeth. It is the most unusual flavor.

{ X }


DIANA CLARKE lives in Western Massachusetts, and during the day she works with public schools and Yiddish history. Her fiction, essays, and interviews have appeared in Armchair/Shotgun, The Billfold, Dissent, Nerve.com, the Los Angeles Review of Books, the Village Voice, and elsewhere, and she has been a featured reader at the Lamprophonic Emerging Writers Series in Manhattan and a writing fellow at the TENT: Encounters with Jewish Culture program. Diana is also an interviews editor for [PANK], and she is very fond of diners. On Twitter she goes by @dclarkwithane.

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