Aide Memoire or You Don’t Really Love It till You Break It Apart By R. Bensen In Which We Are in the midst of Things
A few nights ago, in the bathroom of my family’s apartment, I bitterly wept over a broken bank. I thought my sobs would be inaudible, but even over the roar of the bathroom fan and the running water whispers of the faucet, my family and girlfriend could still hear me.
In Which I Was Returning From an Otherwise Perfect Day
Laurel and I had spent the previous night sleeping on an air-bed in a friend’s attic-loft. While we deeply appreciated the place to sleep, we did not really want to do it again. We wanted a bit more privacy. Now we were returning from a long day that we’d spent in the Quarter. Miracles are all relative, but miraculously the sun had come out and it had turned out to be quite beautiful that Sunday on an otherwise miserably cold weekend. Laurel had been sightseeing and I was enjoying seeing those very same sights (ones I’m usually quite eye-sick of)—in a new light—through her eyes. Eyes which remind me of Wishing Wells. We’d visited with her friend Alex, who is going to school here now and I listened to the conversations of their reunion. Laurel then treated us both to a delicious meal at the Green Goddess in Exchange Alley. After that, we’d gone down the street and there I watched the two of them eat Beignets (because I am allergic to the ingredients) and sketched unwitting people in the cafe.
Now, after climbing the stairs to my family’s apartment, the two of us discovered that the outside shutter-door was locked. This outer-door can only be locked and opened from the inside. My brother and I never really lock that door—there isn’t a good reason to. However, if one of us stays out late with a girl we’re seeing, well, you can be sure that door will be locked. That’s what that door is—a selectively permeable membrane of sorts—the ultimate passive-aggressive rite of passage. An unspoken rule: after soiling ourselves with the sin of even being briefly around someone we have feelings for we must then knock upon it—in order to beg entry from mother.
In Which I Detail What Catholicism Has Done to My
Mother or Perhaps What She Has Done to Catholicism
My mom’s really, really Catholic. Probably more Catholic than most Catholics are. Even if Christ-worship had never spread to the gentiles and instead Greek or Norse Mythology had taken its place, she would probably still believe in angels, the devil, heaven and hell. I’m convinced of that. That’s how catholic she is.
More specifically, she believes in sin. She doesn’t like it when my girlfriend visits from North Carolina. She really doesn’t like it when we stay together. That’s why we try not to stay with my family when Laurel visits. It’s unfortunate because when I visit her, Laurel’s family gives us plenty of space. My mom won’t come right out and say it, but she makes implications. Implications about how she’s deeply concerned with the State Of My Soul. Things like that. At the same time, she’s in a kind of severe denial that the entire thing is happening.
In Which I Admit That I Lived in a Sort of Eden
I don’t mean in the paradisiac sense, but an ideal state of which I will never be able to return to. In the first two years of my relationship with Laurel I lived in Vermont. We were both going to the same art school—in a tiny railroad town where nothing interesting ever happened. We lived in a hostel. Part of the Hotel Coolidge. It was, in essence, the Hotel In The Shining. It had not changed much since the 1970’s. Despite the Weird atmosphere, I was grateful for this state of accommodations because it meant I could visit my girlfriend whenever I wanted to. She was just down the hall. I intentionally made certain that my family didn’t know we were dating until a year into things. It was wonderful. I still pine for that illusion of absolute freedom and hope my girlfriend and I will be living together again.
In Which Something Happens
So—and it was only after rattling the door in a most unseemly manner—my mother lets us into the apartment. The house was dark. A light was on in the tiny kitchen. Another could be seen beneath the door to my brother’s room. A typical evening at the apartment.
The third light was the blue glow of a computer screen in the cramped space that functions as our living room. The apartment would be perfect for two, but three is really pushing it. I guess we’ve just decided to make it work.
My mom doesn’t say anything to us that I can remember. She just walks right back to the her spot on the couch—a couch that used to belong to my grandparents and now functions as her bed—she puts on her headphones and plugs herself back into to one of her online stock-market classes. Some digital plane of existence where she and probably a handful of other get-rich-quick-shmucks are interacting with some huckster of an instructor.
Deciding that my mom didn’t intend on addressing us civilly, we decided on getting some fresh clothes for the night—we were keeping Laurel’s bags in my bedroom. We’d saved up and intended on spending the night at the St. Charles Guest House (New Orleans’ very own version of the Coolidge).
I have to place a drawer (funnily enough, it’s actually the defective drawer from the aforementioned Chinese Chest Adventure) in front of the door to my room in order to keep our my family’s familiar, Perdi the Rabbit from hopping over, pushing my door open, running inside, potentially chewing wires or urinating on everything. Our home has all but turned into a rabbit warren, but my mother adores her rabbit. She won’t call him Perdi though. She thinks the name I came up for him is too effeminate and calls him “Bunny Boy.” He sort of replaced me while I was away at art school. He is allowed to run free in every other room of the apartment—and proceeds to rub his chin gland over everything in sight so as to mark things as “his.” Perdi has been especially intent lately on getting into my room. Much like felines do, he wants precisely what he cannot have.
Laurel pushed the door open to my room and stepped over the drawer. She cleared it neatly (despite the fact that her legs are considerably shorter than mine). I followed, but did not do so unscathed.
Something toppled off the drawer. It broke. I heard change scatter. Someone had just won at the slots. It was indeed the sound some people live for—that they spend their entire lives dreaming about. Yes, something was very wrong.
I turned on the light.
In Which There Are Things Which Are Promised
There were lots of curiosities my brother and I wanted to touch in my grandparent’s house in Mobile, Alabama. Keepsakes that we were never permitted to touch—yet, were promised to us one day my grandfather said. There were two retired polaroid cameras. Some dolls. A porcelain Buddha. Wood carvings of the holy family in that Jesus-boy-king-Infant-of-Prague style. It was a mantelpiece full of Glorious Mysteries. Mementos from my grandfather’s travels in Japan during his detested stint in the Air Force.
There were other curiosities in that living room—a lamp with a green light bulb. I will never know why my grandfather only bought green light bulbs for it. It just always had one.
That house was full of rooms unused too—each contained different family heirlooms, mostly of which were furnishings—and then there were the boxes and boxes of unopened things—they consisted of my grandmother’s orders from QVC. We weren’t allowed in those rooms. My grandparents told us that they would know if we went into them. Our feet would leave footprints in the snow-white carpet. Footprints preserved like that of those in the face of the moon—that’s how little people went into those rooms.
Then there was the monkey. For a while I didn’t know what it was for. I just thought it was a little sculpture. A statuette. If I’d asked, I’d long-forgotten. It, like a certain clown portrait (the subject of yet another story), had stared down at me for years. My life—my growth—could have been recorded in its eyes—measured in all the visits to that aging house which was, coincidentally, also full of woefully outdated 70’s colors and style. That little monkey watched me from up there on the den shelf. It watched me as I watched cartoons. It glowed in the flickering television electric light. Through all the episodes of Courage the Cowardly Dog, Teen Titans or even the time when my grandmother took the slipper off her foot and beat me with it when I didn’t know what she was referring to.
“Bring me that thing,” she said.
She pointed at nothing in particular.
“That thing over there,” she snapped her fingers.
I hadn’t known what she meant.
She never specified what it was that she was looking for. And when I told her that I didn’t see what she was looking for she accused me of being “flip.” There could not be a greater crime than wit in my mother’s family it seemed. I was pretty sure that at the time this happened, I was actually too young to know what sarcasm actually was.
The best thing about that monkey, I would later discover, was the slot in its mouth. It was the opening to an abyss—just large enough for American quarters. It gave the little simian the illusory ability of swallowing money. All the while, there was a little plug in its bottom, so that you could retrieve what you put into it. When we were divvying up my grandparents things and cleaning out their house, I made sure to get the monkey. It was full of old, old pennies. My mom made me give them to her right away. I kept the monkey and used it for streetcar fare
That very same monkey lay in pottery-pieces now on the floor of my room.
In Which We are Back in the Midst of Things
I was staring at the mess of what I didn’t know had been resting on top of the drawer in front of my room.
“…you broke my monkey.”
I know I was projecting. My mom hadn’t broken the monkey. It was my fault. I’d left it on the kitchen table. I’d emptied it out of quarters in a mad dash to catch the streetcar to my classes. What upset me though—hurt me—was that she’d put it there, right there, on the drawer, knowing that I would have to step over it and just assumed I would see it. In that there is a kind of neglect that I cannot soon forgive. Among the many things my mother inherited from her parents, as some sort of paradox, she has a China Bull. I wonder how she would feel if that very same bull were left in the doorway of her home, for her to tip and crush upon her arrival. Who then would be the bull in the China shop?
I loved that monkey and I hated it. It was weird, but let me tell you something: I never thought it would be mine. Never thought the day would come when my grandmother would die. Or that my grandfather would follow not long after—limping along—of a broken heart.
That Monkey looked like he had a secret inside of him. A secret he’d swallowed long ago. An expression of mischief that is also satisfaction. Do you understand? He was some sort of trickster-god to me—he’d eaten the sun and replaced it with a peeled mango. No one was the wiser.
“You broke my monkey.”
I repeated it to her.
She was still listening to her class.
“I said you broke my monkey.”
“Yes. You made me break it.”
My mom just blinked and sat there in the dark illuminated by the glow of her laptop screen. She was still looking at her screen and writing things down.
“That monkey was your parents.”
“I don’t remember that.”
What did she mean she didn’t remember?
“What are you talking about? Didn’t we get that monkey in Florida? I thought you said that you kept it in Laurel’s car in Vermont.”
In Which My Streetcar Fare Monkey Became My Laundry Monkey
It is true. I used to carry it with me when Laurel and I did laundry in Vermont. For a short while I kept it in the glove compartment. That’s very different than leaving it on the car seat or making a hood ornament out of it.
Laurel thought it looked creepy. She would ask me to hide it when she came to my room or at least to turn it around.
I don’t blame her. Pretty much everyone thought the monkey was creepy. It gave off the bizarre air of those monkey trios you see. Like the Nairobi Trio on The Red Skelton Show. Or the old visual proverb you always see depicted: see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil—except this monkey was just holding his belly like he’d eaten very well.
In Which I Give Up the Ghost
I knelt there for a very long time. Down on one knee. I felt something dissipate in that moment. Something went away into the air. My girlfriend stood over me. Waiting for me to do or say something. I slowly stood up. I moved the pile of coins with my feet, stepped over the drawer, went into the cramped bathroom. Turned on the fan. And wept.
In Which There Is a Show and Tell of Sorts
They, my cartoonist hotel-mates in the Coolidge hostel kitchen, all peered down at the brown painted monkey I’d brought for them to see. It was just before dinner.
“He keeps my streetcar fare in his belly.”
I poked his little stomach.
“He eats the coins just like this.”
I took a nickel and deposited it between his lips.
“But he only takes quarters lying on his back.”
My friend Dan gave me a look and then laughed at that.
“That sounds kind of dirty.”
I was laughing at what I’d said too.
In Which I am a Mess
I looked into my reflection then. My eyes were red. My mouth twisted into a grimace. If anyone was talking out there I couldn’t hear them. I didn’t want to hear them.
Sadness turned to blood-curdling rage. I stared into my reflection—and felt the same long-enduring feelings of wanting to smash it. She wasn’t going to do this to me. You’re not going to get away with this, I thought. She’s not going to gaslight me this time. She’s not going to rewrite the narrative to get away with dealing with this as just some superfluous thing. She knows what she did—even if it’s just unconsciously—but she won’t admit it, she’s going to be in denial about the whole thing.
In Which I Attempt to Address Things for What They Are and I Finally Emerge
Being in denial is part of my mother’s being catholic.
It’s why she’s still married to my dad, even though we stay in the apartment in the city and he lives in a house alone on the Northshore. They take turns trading the rabbit back and forth.
It’s the reason why she thinks she has two perfect little flawless and uncontaminated boys who are waiting until marriage to do the BAD THING. It’s why she looks the other way when the family rabbit—who hasn’t yet had the necessary operation—gets horny and tries to have sex with our feet. It’s why when he marks objects by crossing his chin over them she says that he is “blessing them.”
After I dried my eyes I exited the bathroom, I saw that Laurel was peeking around my bedroom door at me. She looked conflicted. My mother stood up then. She walked past me, past my girlfriend. Into my room. She surveyed the damage on the floor then got the broom, dust pan and went into nurse mode. She started to sweep.
My girlfriend put her hand on me. She squeezed my hand. My red eyes had told her everything.
I couldn’t bear to be there any longer. We gathered our things for the night.
By the time we were done the pieces of the monkey’s shell had been deposited onto the top of my desk.
The face of the monkey looked sad now. Startled. Betrayed.
It lay in bits—in pieces—in unhappy fragments woe. Humpty dumpty. No. It was in two large pieces. Mostly. And several smaller ones. The half with the monkey’s face stared back at me—a mask. It’s eyes said to me: do not put me back together again for I saw that of which I should not have seen.
“I don’t remember that, Romey. I don’t think that was my parents.”
She continued to insist this while cleaning.
“Well, it doesn’t matter because it obviously had sentimental value,” said Laurel.
My mother finally admitted that Laurel was right.
“Yes, yes, I know, I know.”
She was in full-on damage control now. Just like nursing school had taught her.
We left then.
In Which We are Once Again Reunited by Staying in a Dingy Hotel
That night, in the bed of the freezing hotel, I told my girlfriend I had been crying.
She said she knew.
She said everyone had known.
She said she had never heard me cry like that before. Had never heard me cry actually.
She said that when my sounds had become audible my mom had called a ROMEY to me from the couch. She had still been listening to her class.
Laurel told me that she’d wanted to hold me. I knew this. I knew she wanted to hold me. I’d wanted her to hold me. Why didn’t I let her?
I loathe the idea that my grandfather wore sunglasses at his daughter’s weddings and at all funerals because men do not cry. I hate that my father thought it reflected bad on him when I acted “like a little ginnywoman” in the times I’d cried when injured or when his family had made fun of me for not knowing a goddamned thing about sports. He would take me by the shoulder, hard, squeezing into some pressure point that he knew would hurt and startle me—because he was a doctor and knew things like that—and drag me to a place no one could see us. Then he’d grab me up by the scruff of my neck, red-faced and eyes bulging.
The rabbit had apparently padded over to the bathroom door and tried to get inside while I was weeping because Laurel said she that she heard my mom call to him.
“Bunny Boy! Bunny Boy, don’t go over there!”
In Which There Is a Brief Epilogue
When we left my mom that night, she was vacuuming in the kitchen. Vacuuming at night. I’m sure the other tenants love that. There was absolutely no reason for this, but sometimes she just does it. Often it will be right in the middle of a favorite show that my brother and I are watching together. It’s rarely because the floor is actually dirty. It’s as if she just needs—temporarily—to drown out all sound. She needs the White Noise to be so loud that she cannot even hear herself think. Drowning out the sound.