“Pursuing the horizon without interruption inevitably
prohibits landfall, harbor, home…”
~Angus Fletcher, A New Theory for American Poetry
I go to the apartment roof alone and always look west, inland toward the lime-green hills of the Connecticut valley in spring and summer, and the burnt colors of fall. I could have looked east – over the tenements and factories of Bridgeport to Long Island Sound and Seaside Park with its bathhouse and rocky beaches. I could have looked to the sunrise, but didn’t. I looked west, the horizon unreachable, enclosing and not enclosing. What was beyond those hills? And what was I really seeking, up on the roof of the four-storey apartment building alone, walking boards laid down over black tar?
I am a fat, fingernail-biting girl—bloody nails, flabby arms, thick unruly hair that will not lie flat. I go to the edge, look down, imagine falling, then flying. It is not impossible. I would jump. And I would fly. Or at least somersault and land on my feet. There are pigeons, roosting. Slate-grey birds with feathers the color of an oil slick. One day in third grade, the boy behind me taps my back and when I turn he holds out the severed pigeon head he has made into a finger puppet on his dirty hand.
I wear the apartment key on a string around my neck. Once I lost the key and my mother was sure someone would find their way to our apartment door even though there were hundreds of doors, each one identical to the next. After that, I would go to another apartment after school one floor up where ‘Aunt’ Maude lived and wait there for my mother. Aunt Maude had a life-sized statue of the Virgin Mary in her bedroom. The Virgin, hands outspread, stood on the earth, her feet crushing the snake. I wanted a statue like that. Aunt Maude also had a bright red kitchen and Victorian loveseats and chairs. It was all so neat. Once I arrived at her door, legs crossed, needing to pee. I ran to the bathroom, leaving a trail of mud I would have to get on hands and knees later to clean up.
I was not afraid on the roof and to this day I’m not sure why I didn’t jump. I was surrounded by other brick apartment buildings, each one a colossus along Washington Avenue. The Sanford, where one-eyed Peter’s father was the Super. And the Fleetwood, where Joe Black’s mother worked. He was older than most of us kids and had dark eyes and black hair. One day he offered to ride me on his bike all the way to Seaside Park but I was afraid of him and ran away. He was taken away one night after he chased his mother up and down the halls with a butcher knife and was sent to Newtown, the hospital for the insane where my mother threatened she would end up if I didn’t behave.
My mother told people we were Cliff Dwellers, hoping to evoke /images of Manhattan’s Riverside Drive, not the ruins of the Anasazi. She said this to give an air of luxury to the fact that four people (mother, father, brother, and me), one collie, one parakeet, and, for a few months, two rabbits that ate the kitchen linoleum were crammed into a one-bedroom apartment. This was the same apartment my parents had moved to as newlyweds, and the apartment in which my brother and I (and our stillborn sister) were conceived, and the apartment our father returned to after his Marine glory days stationed in Honolulu during WW II, eligible for the GI Bill providing low-cost home mortgages with no down payment. But we did not buy a house. We looked at houses. We spent decades of afternoons and weekends driving around with realtors. But my mother would not choose. Something was always wrong. A hill in the backyard where there could be mud slides. Not enough windows. Too many windows. Way out in the suburbs. Too close to the city. Not a colonial. Not this…not that. No, no, no, no. I begged and pleaded. I cried for my own room. No. No. No. Finally I gave up. The apartment became my mother’s (and my) particular hell where I would live until I was eighteen and left for college. This was also the year my parents would finally buy a house.
Our building was U-shaped, two gargoyle wings jutting from the entryway. It had once been fancy with brass railings and a lighted foyer with a bank of mailboxes, each with its own little key. But the building was beginning to run down. The white subway tiled floors weren’t washed as often. The Super spent most days in the basement by the coal furnace with his cronies sitting around and drinking beer. He had cordoned off a little clubroom with a card table and chairs and hung girlie calendars on the walls. Everything was dirty and when I went to the basement to get my bike, if he was there I’d look away as I passed the pinups. If he wasn’t, I’d stop and stare, titillated by the fleshy women, breasts and buttocks spilling out into coal dust.
In our apartment, the first room off the hall was the bedroom where my brother and I slept opposite each other in twin beds we had to sidle around. My mother slept on the couch and my father on a roll-away in the living room. For a long time there was a crib in the bedroom with a mesh top that could be latched to keep a child in. It was used for clothes storage. There was also a baby carriage jammed up against my bed. It too was filled with outgrown stuff. Every spring my mother would drive a load to the Little Sisters of the Poor but the piles continued to grow and consume the room. The closet was packed and had over-the-door hangers on both sides for more clothes to hang.
The bathroom was the only room with a lock. I spent a lot of time in there, protected by the lock on one side and the bubbled window on the other. I would stand on the edge of the bathtub and look at my breasts in the mirror over the sink. Compare myself to the pin-ups Mr. Haskell had in the basement.
The living room had a couch, two tiered maple end tables, assorted chairs, a dining room table, the old black telephone, a high chair and playpen when my brother was little, a black and white TV, and the folded-up bed where my father slept. My mother would paint this room several times when my father was gone for the weekend skiing, always making it darker and darker from tan to hunter green to finally, maroon.
At Christmas, my father and brother would lay down a big piece of plywood in the middle of the living room for my brother’s American Flyer train. He had boxcars and coal cars and a log dump car and a red caboose and a station that lit up and an engine with a horn and a headlight that could blow smoke. I can’t remember how we navigated the living room at Christmas, the four of us and the dog, the decorated tree, the train going around and around.
Perhaps my mother, a petite redhead, enjoyed the attention of the realtors. This idea that only occurs to me now makes my mother’s inability to buy a house more acceptable. These men were obsequious, if frustrated with her. She was lonely, and, as she often told me, felt unappreciated. There was power in being the potential buyer, even though she never bought. Her favorite was Mr. Ryan. She drove around with him looking at houses for twenty years. I remember one of the hundreds we looked at. It was a brand new split-level and had wall-to-wall carpet, a mudroom, and a balcony in the living room where you could look down when you came out of your bedroom. But there was a hill in the backyard, not too close to the house. What was over that hill? My father, who rarely came with us, liked this house and he and my mother fought about it. She said who would want to come into a house through a mudroom. And what about mudslides from that hill? For some reason I have forgotten, I took my mother’s side in the argument and can still see the disgusted I-give-up look on my father’s face. I remember it because I knew at the time I was wrong, that the argument was not about the house. It was about power and I was playing sides and the side I wanted to be on was my mother’s. But why? Or was I just arguing for the sake of argument? Arguing to see if I could win. My father used to say I would make a good lawyer. But really, it was all about losing.
The U-shaped apartment roof was covered with a boardwalk that led to laundry lines. Cold December afternoons, my mother, her hands angry-red, would ride the elevator carrying her wicker basket of wet laundry, then climb the last flight of stairs to the roof to hang our clothes, sheets, and towels. She would curse coming back later to find the laundry covered with black dots of soot from the big chimneys that heated the building and made the radiators clang. She cursed about a lot of things—my father’s drinking, my ungratefulness, my loud voice, my taking up too much space. Judas Priest was her favored expression and one that, attending Catholic school as I did, confused me. When she was really angry she’d threaten to leave and take my brother but leave me with my father. We were alike, she said. We deserved each other.
I never had friends come home with me. Through high school, I met my dates outside on the street and kissed them goodbye in their cars. I never invited anyone to the roof. There was a shelter up there with a bench facing predictably east, sunrise, new day. I sat there one night with my father after another violent argument with my mother, perhaps the one when I kicked out the glass of a mirror that was propped up against the cramped bedroom wall. I stormed (or fled) the stifling apartment, ran down the dirty hallway to the elevator, pushed the button and rose up before climbing the last flight of stairs to the roof. My father came up later and sat with me. He said my mother was changing. I don’t know if he actually called it the change of life. I wouldn’t have known what that was. But I was changing, too. My mother would dry up as I was beginning to bleed every month into possibility, my poor father in-between us, a fulcrum of sorts, except that he would become more and more absent to Ski Club meetings or bowling at the Algonquin Club before adjourning to the bar.
I could not be patient. I loved my mother. And, I hated her. I was surrounded and adrift. After my father and I looked out to the sea and he tried to reason with me, he left and I turned to look west. What was out there, all those miles and miles of fields and hills, all that landscape? And finally, all that horizon which did not seem a limiting thing, the curve of a bowl, the furthest circumference. It seemed instead possibility, freedom, escape.
Cary Waterman is a poet and creative nonfiction writer. Her published books
include The Salamander Migration (University of Pittsburgh Press), When I Looked
Back You Were Gone (finalist for the Minnesota Book Award), and, most recently,
Book of Fire (finalist for the Midwest Book Award). Her work appears in many
anthologies including A Geography of Poets, Poets Against the War, The Logan House
Anthology of 21st Century American Poetry and 150 Years of Minnesota Poetry. She
has won awards from the Bush Foundation, the McKnight Foundation and the
Minnesota State Arts Board. She has had residencies and the Tyrone Guthrie Centre
in Ireland and the MacDowell Colony. She teaches in the Augsburg College MFA