Sounds of Silence

Selected by Dzanc Books for their Best of the Web 2010 anthology.

Hello darkness my old friend,
I’ve come to talk to you again
– Simon and Garfunkel

I watch him smiling to himself as we eat our first married meal together. McDonald’s. He has some light in his eyes now, his hair is combed back into his ponytail, and when he looks at me, his face turns a pale shade of pink. I love that in a man.

I think I’ve made a mistake, I’m jittery and can’t eat except for the French fries. I married a schizophrenic with droopy brown eyes and incisor cheekbones a 5′7″ Puerto Rican man with butter lips and buttery under-biceps, a belly that I bounce on and a habit of grabbing my breasts, smiling and saying, perky boobies. Look at you, he says, taking my face into both his cracked-skin hands, where the knuckles are raw and red from sleeping in the castle. You are dewy. Your skin is even more beautiful. You’re glowing like a jack o lantern.

Don’t talk to me like that, Jose, that kind of talk won’t change what you did. What he did was not tell me. Not really or fully or what’s true. Wouldn’t tell me when he left his life behind.

He’s crying. Right there in McDonald’s, loud sobs blending in with the loud gangs of kids that should be in school, with the single mothers and their triple strollers.

My new husband is crying and flurries today and he’s up and running into it, ketchup-faced, not wearing his parka, and the snow’s swirling around in cones, like tornados, twisting over the empty streets until they whip against Jose, and I’m not getting up, not running to him, a little revenge of mine, and I think: crazy Puerto Rican man doesn’t know how to act. And I’m thinking, oh no, what if he runs away for good, where will that leave me?

Then I’m looking through the window, shaking so much I think someone will think I’m the untamed one, and that’s when Jose, in some crazy wild search for his right mind, falls on the snow like a clown. That’s when some people dressed like Eskimos stop and pick him up and before I know, they’re in here with me, asking, Are you his wife, he says he loves you, but he’s afraid. And I think of that movie with Linda Fiorentino and Bill Pullman where she rips off his money and becomes Wendy in a cow town, and as she’s running away, Pullman says: You better run! Well, Jose, You better be afraid. I married you but I can’t cope. Every minute I think you’ll be off, and see—look at you—every minute I think of what could have been in my life. Damn it. I was runner-up in Miss Massachusetts. I had a scholarship to Trinity Repertory Conservatory. I had everyone stare at me when I walked down the street—hey, pretty, whatcha doin’, hey chickie—wanna come with me? Hey sweetheart—how come you’re not in pictures? And I am not from this low life.

Then I’m saying, tell him, go ahead, tell him to come in. It’s all ok. Then I see them go out to him, take his hand, bring him to me. I see a snowy shadow of a man—looks like a petrified snowman—people pointing and saying he’s so scared he shook out of his own skin and take him, you, woman, wife, take him, be kind. And so I’m kind. And so I hide my throat-closing love inside. I mean to make him pay. I mean to be mean. For now.

To worry about snow is to be snow, bound; and snow’s where I got married and this picture of him running like a cartoon and his sad-happy eyes is like a canvas I can write anything I want. An open prairie. I wish he’d stop flailing his hands, wish he’d place them on me, at least. I haven’t known him in his private dimension where he wants me to follow, not like this.

Stop it, baby—Jose. Stop. You want that doorman to call someone to take you away?

He hangs his head low. He lifts it to say I love you Nanette, more than all the galaxies. To think about snow will take more time than any woman has left. Like all the robins in spring, not enough for this woman.

~ ~ ~

I married a schizophrenic man to fly. Right out of that homeless shelter on Beaver Street, the one tucked so low and in between Duane Reade and the Sanitation Department you’d hardly notice it even with its burgundy door. It was sleeping on pavement moments that uncorked me. One night of that and I dropped in to the drop-in centre. That’s what they’re calling them now. Two days homeless and he put his hand in mine. He’s all tornado and moan. He’s hearing voices and I wipe sweat off his temples. I want to grab my hand back, he’s a street guy, a vaquero, a younger guy, a muchacho malo. I don’t. I keep my hand there and he steals indiscriminately from my future. He walks me to the river, his flamboyant face in mine. Come, baby, come! And I know he could render me like the insides of a clam, but I come. And I eat the ice cream he buys me and I let him take me down, down by the river, to the Japanese Garden, through tangled trees and big purple flowers, through the sunflowers with long green necks. They swerve through me like he will and I know this is one way to be fed.

The next night we didn’t sleep there, we slept in Battery Park, told them we needed some air. You have to tell them; you’re a number on a lined notebook sheet, they want money from the state. Your name, your body is cash. The third month we escaped from there. We began as butterflies but when the State comes, and it comes for all the homeless people, with their rules and their humiliations, we ejaculated with truck-driver mouths, we gouged like x-actos ripping cross curtains and we planned and we got a license and we got married.

We got away from the uneducated social workers who told me this: Get your lips off of him, girl. And they told him that: You ain’t got no beautiful mind, you crazy.

I’m thinking this is my wedding day. And where to go now? Married and it’s like a new country, even newer than homeless land. I’m remembering pictures and TV clips of girls and women being pulled from rivers, it’s always rivers, and here we are, a few blocks from the beginning of water. See, since I couldn’t find work for so long and since I got evicted from that woman’s residence, I got no feeling for anything, and I’m tired of the skull-capped boys and men trying to cop a feel, and the women with six pocketbooks trying to cut me up in the shower.

I need him. Still—at the corner of my mind there is me in my mind-pictures: glamorous, Audrey Hepburn dress and pumps, a cigarette holder, me in cool jeans and a flowy top, me in a white lace sundress at the beach, me on the cover of a magazine, me walking through roses on a grand stage after the best performance of my life, me as Alma, Phaedra, Lady. Me as me. I carry these pictures with me still, like they are real, mementos in my pocketbook that don’t wither or crack, that just get more razor-sharp, clear as windexed windows and more dangerous until the schism between what is today and what is in my mind-corner causes permanent dissociation.

Baby, baby, Nanette, he’s crying. He’s soaked, he’s mine. Nanette, I’m sorry. Don’t leave me. Where should we go now? And so I take him in my arms, stroke his drenched hair, his ponytail I used to love that I want to cut off.

When the real love, the real connection came: it came first as the aura of love, Broadway stained whiter than chalk. Then when it came to me fully it was the bottom of my belly bottomed out and only Jose could fill it up. And there too was the sound of tires whirring and a scary silence, the sound of no people and snow, tapping loudly on the street creating a canvas, a painting and we, two lone married figures huddled and walking to the subway, where my nerves were stretched taut and I realized yes, I do need you, Jose, I do want you. You are my only thing in life. This life I never dreamed could be so surreal. And a subway to the infamous hell of EAU. The Emergency Assistance Unit in the Bronx.

~ ~ ~

Signed in, we sit on a low bench among a thousand screaming kids, their mothers too pooped, or too stupid to try to quiet them. The air is saturated with sweat, baby’s diapers being changed, overflowing toilets, stinky snacks I never heard of. Some of them stare at me, where’s your babies? their eyes say. Some of them sneer at me and I sneer right back. And of course they back down. I don’t care if they don’t. I almost want them to start something. Maybe a brawl, an incident will call in the media. Then I can tell my wild story. But they do back down. Must be the disgust-glow in my eyes. Must be they can tell I’m no longer afraid, that I know I don’t belong here, so hey, you and you, don’t mess with me, ‘kay? This is their world, their ritual, and I am only a honkie, again, maybe a spy. The hall is littered with bodies, the cops, or rent-a-cops, who knows, pointing fingers at drooling, snoring faces. Get up get up; get out of the hall. Find somewhere else to go. Voices garbled and rock-concert-decibled over the loud-speaker, belting out names, places to report to, papers to fill out. A mini-series could fill the reams of paper we have already filled out. That I’ve filled out. For a reason never to be revealed, and God forbid you ask, the woman is head-of-household. This means the woman is burdened with all the paperwork, all the aggravation, the husband just signs his name, here, there, and over here. And because my identification still holds my maiden name, I’m seat-belted into eternity as Nanette Rayman, not Nanette Rivera.

They strip your dignity. They strip your name.

This is my wedding night. I can still feel your hands pulling me naked. I can still hear you brimming in my ear.

This place, this noise is forever. It’s a measure of time, dissemination; it’s a string of hornet-stings that harden to agony. Forever hovering. I sit on the low bench, Jose outside smoking. We can’t smoke at the same time because if they call us and we don’t answer together, we’re logged-out. That’s homeless-welfare-big-brother-speak for kicked out. Gotcha. You have to start over. They say to us: Pay attintion, or yull git logged out. They have the power to name things. Hours are years in this homeless module.

My forehead beads with sweat. Pain centres in my right eye like a chainsaw, dribbles into my teeth like medicine, burning an IV drip, like iambs of electricity. The chairs and the people have orange coronas around them and words are really dancing alphabet letters that make no words. I forget why we came here. Why I live. Jose drifts toward the bench like smoke. He says, What is it, what hurts? Is he trying to be facetious or trying to be a sweet husband? I don’t know. Imagine being so dissociated, you imagine tales of rot when your husband is sweet to you.

A stinking man stands in a pool of water bubbling with blood, like a lollipop going down the drain. There are tough women, like crocodiles lunging from the rash of bodies to tear the daylight from anyone who looks half-way normal and pretty; one tries to sit down next to me, her legs and arms sticking out of her hot pink hootchie clothes like a handful of matches, her stench like a reptile. Jose tells her to Beat it. Get lost.

Like my long-ago self, I wish for a star or a button to push, anything to magic me away to a decent life, to a life with people afraid of crack, disgusted by noise, and terrified of where I am sitting, right now. Or a button to vaporize me into no-thing-ness.

Jose leans in to kiss me. He whispers, I love you, baby, I love you. We sit together on a low bench, M&M’s and gummy bears stuck to the wood; dolls and hard pieces of toy trucks hurling through the air. We sit together, Jose hearing voices, me nauseated and blinded by a type A migraine. We plan our future before sunrise, and cast our blotted images at Bronx’s feet.

Voices, noise over me, under me, beside me. A deaf person could hear them. The thing I notice most, will remember most, is the noise. Everywhere in the system. As if people on welfare, homeless people, and all generic degenerates need noise to breathe. You could fill Shea Stadium with middle class people with jobs, and have it be the last game of the World Series, and still, the noise wouldn’t be as loud as these people sprawled all over the floor at EAU.

A woman over there, right across from me, yawps and bellows and squeals until her lips burn rubber. I see white teeth, slash of tube-top, jeans splitting down the ass. I think: She wants to combust. She whoops again, tossing her melon-tits into faces. Her words popping like guns, that voice zigzagging along the long room, across benches and benches and benches, into my cranium, my blood vessels, my migraine.

Days of this. Twenty four seven. Our marriage feeling like bondage. Jose is crying, fingers twitching. Can’t take it can’t take it can’t take it, he says. His mind has its own shape like a dress clothes-pinned to a line, unable to move with it all.

Men hacking green phlegm and bleeding from noses and armpits. Children with faces of grown women, lined and pitted, wonder why their mothers refuse to answer. Children cursing, talking trash, wait for fathers who won’t be back to save them. Women thin as dental floss. Women fat as two-car garages. They all flop around gulping Cheetos and Popeyes Chicken, gallons of grape soda. We don’t have money for that. We don’t have children. That’s the trick. Have babies—have money. They swell and swell. They chew til their eyes roll and then they topple over, farting and belching and smacking their lips and their children.

It’s foul. I want to take a bath, put a mask over my nose. Plug up my ears. Acres of bodies with no impulse control. Mouths spewing words, any words to keep themselves alive. No one can stop them. Bodies chomping and bleeding and snorting.

Now they bring us in grade-school fashion, lined up neatly, to the basement kitchen. There are rows and rows of cheap tables and chairs, and along one wall those restaurant-style barrel grey cylinders pouring out milk. Boys and girls lift the spigot and milk flies all over the counter, lays in pools of white everywhere. Not one mother scolds. They are too tired or too who-cares. There are loud words and louder screams that don’t stop. There are emotional moments, and statements made in the fire of all these anxious moments, in the heat of this eternity: When the fuck are we gonna get outta here, man? One droopy-faced guy with a droopier dirty hat slobbers jam all over himself. Will ya shut the kids up, already? His sleek-haired wife shakes her head, humungous fake gold earrings dancing, and clicks her teeth. She does that almost-belly-dancer thing with her neck and glares right at his droopiness. Why’d we have ’em anyway, huh? Huh? Tell me lover. Tell me fucker. Each word louder and meaner.

I sit at our table and force myself to swallow a few times. Nerves make me gag and when I can’t swallow I feel I’m drowning. Hard to eat with all our stuff with us, under us, between my legs. Never be foolish enough to leave your things anywhere. Gone like a dress on a clothesline during a windstorm. Gone.

Runny eggs, fake orange juice, the noise, the people, the kids, the stink of milk all around, bacon and white toast, all glowed like apparitions. Eat something, baby. Jose’s voice a massage, a whisper, yet far, far away, feebly piercing the migraine aura jackhammering my head. You can sleep on the benches. I’ll listen for our name; promise, baby. They bring out tiny cartons of real orange juice. A delicate hint of normal. Doesn’t last long. They’re all locomotives, steaming through each other and Jose tries to get at least one o.j., but he’s shoved into the milk dispensers and he’s crying and he’s saying I’m schizophrenic, the people, the people, and I see his mouth moving, and can’t hear him anymore, but his lips are saying, Nanette, come, Nanette, help and I rush over and an obese woman knocks my ear like a boxer and I’m crying and the stress and the pain and I want to kill these animals. These professional homeless with their scruffy babies and their boom boxes and appliances and plaid laundry bags and their big fat mouths and their fat hands on my ears. Only the ones who know about the system would know to bring all this stuff. And no one helps Jose, not one worker, even though he looks crazy now. And no one says a word about the fatso who almost took my ear off.

The room is spinning or is it me and the air is gone and the stench and I just sit right down on the floor. Jose makes his way over to me. Let’s go upstairs. I’m using the crazy card. Telling them to make it faster for us; I can’t take it. Can’t. He’s pulling me up, pulling my hand like a little boy. Baby, come, are you alright? The smell of baby’s vomit. … God knows how I will last … who will save us now … Eggs melting in my mouth with that metallic migraine taste … I let him pull me and I stand up alarmed, the pounding in my head bigger now, reinforced like pelvic exam forceps, and that howling storm of fluorescent light.

~ ~ ~

Upstairs Jose knocks on the social worker’s door. I didn’t even know there was one. Jose has radar for anyone who he can kind of con, anyone who will listen to his schizophrenic woes. He knows that he’s got nothing to lose. And sometimes it works, he says. I look out over the sea of bodies, the fog rising from too much heat and too much flesh. I look out over them as if I am on a beach, and for miles and miles there are big sea creatures dying on the sand and I am not part of them, I am an observer. Dissociate again. It works for awhile. The sweat down my back, between my breasts dries deliciously. But the noise is worse than the planes flying low over Balboa Park. It is an entity, the main occupant of this place; it is everywhere, it leaks continuously as from chambers where gas is trapped and ignited. I am tired of rearranging our bags. My back hurts and I can’t open my jaw.

Without warning, the social worker’s door swings open. She looks half-way normal. Please, miss, please, I must speak with you … you see I’m a schizophrenic, please let me in your office where the noise is gone. Please let me tell you what I have to tell you. I never thought she’d let us in, but she shoos us in fast and slams the door before any of the fauna could push past us.

She’s kind, this woman, she really feels for Jose. He exaggerates his sick mannerisms. Fingers twitching, eyes scrunching, a rocking back and forth and voila– she lets us sit in her office for two hours of peace. No noise, no smells. This is the Roman Coliseum, Jose says to her. The babies are falling out of walls. They’re dying and dead. They’re too many and too many colours, green, some. This woman looks like she knows what he means. She looks like she knows Jose is hallucinating. And I’m sure he is. It’s just that he doesn’t hesitate for a moment to use it. And why should he?

This is war.

What she doesn’t do is tell us we have to stay awake all night. Jose and I sleep on touching benches. No room for two bodies on one. Our bodies, our homes. We melded and his long hair smelled of cigarettes and stress. For one tiny moment he cupped my breast. Our wedding night. His palms were hot on my face. He opened to me and with me and we slept too deep. With his unbrushed tongue—I couldn’t find his toothbrush—he traced my ear and then my face. It was sweet and candy-tasting from all the candy we bought across the street to keep us silenced. In a room decades away I hear my father tell me I’m pretty, that pretty girls are lucky in America.

~ ~ ~

In the morning, at the barred cage the workers stand behind, cages like prison-visiting cells, we are told we have to start all over again. We’ve been logged out. That’s how they get you. Government as game show. I lost my head. Then I’m falling somewhere, rage-blind, no seatbelts, no logic, nothing to reign me in. I see my hands rip the metal bars and snap her neck, her haughty expression, her jiggly body flying into tiny scraps. Then the snotty girl is telling me again, like she’s teaching me a hard geometry lesson, that I am the head of the household, not Jose, because in this world that’s the way it is. The woman’s the head. And being the head, I was supposed to stay awake all night waiting for them to call our names. And being the head, I lost my head, again, crying and stamping my foot like a little girl. The caged girl snorted, smiled her ha-ha smile and handed up the long forms to start again.

Can’t you just use the same form? I make that face I make when I’m near lowlifes trying to cage me. A sneer with my mouth and a smell into the air like something stinks. This is stupid, why do I have to fill it out again, when you have it right in your hand? Jose is banging on the ledge. Yeah, what is your problem? I’m sick you know. Schizo. I smile because he’s using it, playing them like they’re playing us. You rock, baby.

She said OK, she looked a little green, like she knew he could go ballistic and she’d be hurt. She knew. And Jose and me, we smiled our own ha-ha smile. On the second night we get a voucher to line up at midnight to be bussed to a sterile prison-like motel for the remaining hours until dawn. Jose and me. We stand outside. Wind blows through our coats. Air washes us. We’re getting clean, as clean as we can be right now.

Nanette Rayman Rivera is a two-time Pushcart Nominee for nonfiction and poetry, and the first winner of the Glass Woman Prize for nonfiction. Her publications include the poetry collection Project: Butterflies and the chapbook, alegrias.