by Liz Asch
2018 Essay Contest Honorable Mention
I was haunted by Anne Frank.
She tagged along with my sister and me, peering over our shoulders while we knotted thin bracelets from long strands of string. She played with our old dolls and the stuffed animals in our bedroom while I lay on the carpet drawing and my sister read Anne’s diary in our closet. At night, Anne slept in the thin scrim of shadow under my bed, her hand flopped out past the railing, her thumb and forefinger open as if waiting to grab my heel when it landed on the carpet each morning.
When my little brother’s school got spray-painted it was Anne who fixed it. With a bucket of soapy water and a metal brush, she scrubbed away the KKKs that hissed along the stone wall, spilled into the driveway, and swooped down the slide on the playground. She sanded DIE JEWS off the front door and repainted it. She rubbed the giant swastika off the climbing wall of the fort where my brother hid with his friends during lunch.
All around us were ghosts. Their shoes piled high in the driveway. Yellow stars sprang out from our teacher’s desk drawers like Post-it notes. Our tongues grew thick with what remained unsaid. Barbed wire fences laced between our muscles and skin.
At home, Anne watched us with her dark, knowing eyes and pretty furrowed hairline, studying the slapping and clapping and chants of our hand games. Miss Mary Mack all dressed in black. Miss Suzie had a baby. Anne stood next to my sister in the mirror, and I watched their matching deep-set eyes and hopeful smiles while they brushed their thick, dark hair, looking like family.
In the forest, just beyond the edge of wild that broke from our neighborhood, the sun glinted through the trees in long slants, and the sky pressed its blue length behind the scant stamp of a leftover moon, and the wind rattled against the leaves like a million hands waving—and there was Anne. Her arms rose up from her sides and stretched outward. She spun her body slow and wide, her feet stumbling on pine cones and pine needles, her fingers moving like feathers, eyes closed, her slim face lifted to the sun. I saw the wind lick her teeth. And I wished she would just disappear into the bristling light and tree limbs.
At cotillion, we danced to “Didn’t We Almost Have It All.”
The boys picked the girls and spun them in large, clumsy circles, snickering and trying to step on one another’s toes where their paths crossed. The girls wore white cotton gloves with thick finger seams, damp from the wet heat of the boys’ palms. Our reward for this middle school ordeal was a waxed paper cup of watered down Coca-Cola and a crummy soft-baked chocolate chip cookie. For us, the six Jewish kids in my class, cotillion was the only time we came to the country club and the only time I felt allowed to be there. Any Jewish families who had the audacity to apply for membership were routinely turned down. Everybody knew this.
Whitney Houston crooned love songs while twenty sets of boy-girls teetered their awkward four-step on the parquet floor. When “Funkytown” came on, we took a step back, disentangling from one another’s arms to move like stodgy cartoon characters. The boys’ shoes squeaking on the floor. The girls’ dresses rustling against their legs. We lumbered against one another to “She’s Like the Wind,” Joanne Friedman beside me in another boy’s arms, sweating in her sister’s hand-me-down taffeta. Joanne’s long lashes, blunt jaw, boyish hands, can’t look in her eyes, she’s out of my league, the shaggy bangs cut over her forehead, the soft down of her cheek, oh! her lips. If only her hand were on my back, her arm leading me, just a fool to believe I have anything she needs.
For the last ten minutes of class we all sat on the white vinyl chairs pushed to the walls to eat our cookie and sip our soda. Boys on one side, girls on the other. Ladies, the teacher snapped, ankles crossed! Looking down at the X of my legs in saggy hosiery, my shoes once patent leather but now too scuffed to hold a reflection, the calico flowers fading off my dress, my white gloves in my lap, limp and stained. On the outside I looked enough like the rest of them. Long hair, blue eyes, freckles. But beneath my skin lay a tangled mass of black hair, leather, and crowded teeth, waiting to erupt.
He was driving me home, and I should have felt safe.
I knew I should have felt safe. A thirteen-year-old girl alone in a car with a forty-year-old man. It was okay. He was a friend of my father. He knew the route to my house. He had wine on his breath, but he seemed fine. His pretty wife was at home, checking on their children I had tucked into bed. In their house, a little less ice cream in the freezer, a pizza box crammed in the trashcan. In my pocket, a small fold of money.
Nothing to worry about. But my hand gripped the edge of the seat, and at every turn I weighted myself against the door so as not to slide even a millimeter closer to him, his thighs on the seat next to mine.
Their four-year-old daughter had thrown up over the edge of the deck after bouncing around too much in the baby pool after dinner. I hadn’t told them. It would be there in the morning, a mess rotting in the grass, and I hoped they wouldn’t notice. I hoped their daughter wouldn’t say anything, that she would lose the memory in her sleep, or that if she did remember, she’d think it was a dream, or that if she did tell them, they wouldn’t believe her.
I kept my mouth pinched shut, answering mm-huh, uh-uh to his questions, wondering if he was taking me home the right way. All the roads were dark and anonymous, the street signs tilted so that I couldn’t read them. With each swing of the headlights, my terrified imagination tumbled around in my body creating nightmares.
In my mind, the car might pull over into the woods, engine humming. Then the eerie moment when the lights click off, darkening the trees around us. The air thickens with prickles. His face turns in the darkness as if to say you know what I want. His desire worth more than my resistance. A paper husk of me flies off into the night to perch like an owl in a tree. From the owl’s strange distance, I watch it all happen, that version of me in the car becoming a plastic doll, unfeeling and stiff, his hands under her shirt, on the button of her pants, his body pressed over her, her eyes shut.
But it didn’t happen that way.
I just thought that it would. Or that it was supposed to.
This seed of fear I held—that every older man kept the shine of my girlhood hidden in his mouth.
The walls of my bedroom were quilted portals.
Posters of Magritte’s Ceci n’est pas une pipe, and Escher’s hands drawing each other drawing each other, and Pygmalion falling in love with Galatea—his carved marble statue come to life—and you can almost smell her musty armpits and feel the burn of her blush as she embraces him with her first breath.
All around the posters I taped photos from magazines, changing the sky blue walls into a paper quilt, surrounding myself with a wider, more beautiful reality. Straw-haired children on donkeys over mountain passes. The painted faces of jungle children peeking out from the green. Baltic women with large icy eyes and thin lips, black mountains behind them like the silhouette of a giant sleeping on its side. Afghani peasants holding baskets of bright plums and apricots. Russian country folk ice skating on a pond set like a polished stone in gold grass. Office secretaries with pouty red lips, pin curls and long legs. Carved bangles stacked on wrists. 70s city kids mid-leap in the summer’s gushing street hydrant. Piles of lentils sifted by slim fingers. Faraway children on rickety swings captured skyward in the apex of freedom.
On the floor in the living room, while we all watched The Cosby Show and Family Ties on TV, I clipped pictures from my stash of National Geographic magazines. I saved the pictures in three piles. The ones with star-eyed women and dark blue skies made my chest ache, so they were set aside for my bedroom walls. In another pile I saved odd objects and charismatic people to make collages in which I could clash strange images together in new arrangements. A 50s secretary’s legs kicking the moon across the sky. A rainbow coming out of a singing man’s ear. From the third pile, interesting backgrounds and textures got traced with an X-Acto knife around a cardboard template and turned into envelopes. I folded the tabs in and glued them shut, enclosing letters written to my pen pals from camp and my Soviet twin, a child across the globe whose address I received as part of my Bat Mitzvah responsibilities. By some mistake I was assigned a boy. Vladimir Slepak. I wore a little metal bracelet engraved with his name in both English and Hebrew. I sealed his letters in envelopes I made from maps, the blue and pink and yellow distances folded between us, hoping that through his words the world might land stamped and delivered in my open hands.
The diary I kept was a jumble.
Each letter was written atop the other so as to be indecipherable, and if that wasn’t enough, then each word had to be torn from the sentence, dabbed with spit so the ink blurred, crumpled, and placed in a cigar box tucked in the back of my closet. I had to be sure no one would ever read what I wrote: no one in my family, no visitors, no one unearthing our things from the dirt after our demise, no all-seeing God if there was one. The tidy little book I owned that said Diary on the cover, with the tiny lock on the side, was empty. I kept it on my nightstand as a prop, always with one careful hair draped over it diagonally, so that I would know if anyone was snooping. When I read my older sister’s diary, I was careful to look for a hair placed atop hers, aware that she might scan for spies in the same way. I leafed through her pages about teachers and school, her friends’ attributes, how she was riveted by their hair, their eyes, their voices. Her girlhood was all there, splayed on the page in purple gel pen. Confessions she admitted only to her diary or perhaps to a God I didn’t know. And then one day the words, Do you think that makes me a lesbian? in querulous cursive.
A sick feeling sunk inside me. I laid the diary back on her shelf, placed a strand of my own hair on top of it, and never opened it again.
How did she find it, this sentence still forming in the clumsy heat of my mouth? Purple cursive, a question mark knotted into a heap, secrets stashed in closets, pressed between the pages of books. They weren’t her words, they were mine.
The swastika was a trick of hypnosis, it must have been.
It was a nexus, two lines each heading their own direction, then bent, entangled, and pinned. It mesmerized you to a point of calm and then snared you and held your allegiance. Hold on, it said while it hooked you, now follow. It was a windmill, the spin of a parasol, an image of propulsion made still just for a moment. Before Hitler, they say it meant good luck in other cultures. But he took it, mishandled it and repurposed it into a sign for racial purity. You can’t see it any other way anymore. You have to ignore its elegant coil and perfect simplicity. If you dare to draw it you better hide in the closet where no one can see you. If you draw it over and over again, squinting to figure it out, mesmerized by its symmetry, its blinding power, you have to scribble over it afterwards with ink and black marker to blot it out completely and tear it to shreds and flush it down the toilet.
I saw the gleam in their eyes.
Masses of men and women with coiffed hair and bright smiles swarming under a silver sky with hand-stitched flags. Troops of children with stiff arms and widened mouths. Heil! They were a sea of people larger than any I’d ever seen. They looked like scouts in uniform. They looked like my classmates.
And then the filmstrip switched to the camps. The people, my people, skeletal, imprisoned, ghostly. Piles of corpses. It was only fifty years ago. My ancestors came from those countries. If they hadn’t left it would have been me, sick, beaten, and starved. Could I have survived? Or hidden like Anne? Or would I have lied, using any camouflage I could to escape? Would I have pretended to be someone else?
Cowardice. Risk. The hungry, the hunted, the haunting.
Stories that flashed on the backs of my eyelids.
A potato passed between hands. A crumb of bread. A scrap of leather.
Death around us like a swamp.
And then when the teacher flipped the lights on, we all blinked, and some kids turned their heads or looked at me from the sides of their eyes. I was small already but I made myself smaller. I was in a sea of people, and we were blonde and following a flag. I was emaciated behind razor wire. Shivers of cold inside and hands clasped around my elbows. My classmates kept quiet. Nobody daring to ask, What made them hate you so much?
I only pretended to pray.
The glow of the stained glass windows in synagogue played in my lap, shimmering sticks of light and spills of blue, yellow, and rose. The figures in the windows were trapped in stillness, these plays of color and shadow their only offering, runoff from the daily slide of the sun. Voices of the congregation filled the air, a chorus of repetition I knew well. Softly, my lips mouthed the words just a little bit wrong as I slid altered vowels into the Hebrew and exchanged slips of consonants. A small act of rebellion, a quiet refusal to follow for the sake of following. Anyone who is listening, I commanded in my mind to God or whomever else was hiding there behind the scrim, camouflaged in the tenor, this is just to say that I will not be told what to believe.
In my room at night, alone, I counted the things that were wrong with me.
Big nose. Too shy. Can’t ride a bike. Limp hair. Bad at math. Weird looking legs. Liar. Snoop. Kiss-up. I twisted my body into near-impossible contorted positions, legs wrapped tightly around each other, knees overbent, arms entangled and hinged to the bed frame. For each wrong I had to stay in the pain of the position for a full minute, my eyes screwed on the creaking churn of the clock. First it was only discomfort, and then the pain began to scream, and then I went numb, slowly, like being dipped in cold water. When the clock creaked the right number and my time was up, I’d resist giving in to the relief, forcing myself to stay in the pain even longer, for all the other wrongs layered beneath the obvious ones, all the ills I’d forgotten to name.
Each night before I fell asleep I saw him.
I don’t know who he was or where he came from but he stayed with me, a recurring incidence of hypnagogia. Night after night I had vivid waking dreams, and when I closed my eyes I saw him on my ceiling like a movie screen. One shot focused on the treetops while the wind blew. It was a man, or what I guessed to be a man, arms and legs spread wide, belly to the sky, caught, like a piece of prey in a spider’s web. The light glinted around the shape of him, as if he were laser-cut from a silver sky. In my bed, I studied the shape of his faraway body, and I matched mine to his. It was scary at first. But once I fitted myself to his silhouette, it felt good to give my body to the sky like that. A star-shaped man. A star-shaped girl. His body swaying along with the trees, the light gleaming around him in sharp bursts. We met there in the forest at night. I got to watch him. I was safe. There was all that distance between us. The expanse of tree trunks. The length of growing limbs.
Published February 17th, 2019
Liz Asch is a visual artist, writer, acupuncturist, educator, and creativity consultant, who writes at the intersection of art, lyricism, and the body. Born in North Carolina, Liz came of age in New York City, and now lives in Portland, Oregon with her son. She holds an undergrad degree from Vassar College, an MFA in Creative Nonfiction and a Masters in Oriental Medicine. Liz has worked as a printmaker, bookbinder, artist’s assistant, studio hand, herbalist, and teacher. Her publications include The Rumpus, The Collagist, Entropy, The Manifest Station, Gertrude Press, Sinister Wisdom, Phoebe, BUST, Atticus Review, The Dream Closet, the poetry anthology Step Lightly, among others. Liz has written two books and is seeking representation: Recto/Verso is a collection of lyric essays and poetics on portraiture, expressionism, and art making; and Still Lifes with Paper Girl is an essay collection exploring identity through various personal lenses. In Portland, Liz runs Night Sky Acupuncture + Ideaphoria, a haven for embodied creativity.
Marina Abramović is a Serbian artist known for her vanguard performance pieces that use her body both as subject and vehicle. Incorporating performance, sound, video, sculpture, and photography into her practice, Abramović braved dangerous or grueling acts to investigate sensation and its effects, often with audience participation. “The function of the artist in a disturbed society is to give awareness of the universe, to ask the right questions, and to elevate the mind,” she stated. Born on November 30, 1946 in Belgrade, Serbia (former Yugoslavia), Abramović met German performance artist Ulay while living in Amsterdam, the couple continued their collaboration until their separation in the late 1980s. Part of a group of avant-garde artists, including Vito Acconci and Chris Burden, that experimented with using one’s body as a medium in the 1970s, Abramović pushed physical and mental boundaries to explore themes of emotional and spiritual transfiguration. In 2010, her popular retrospective The Artist is Present was exhibited at The Museum of Modern Art, that same year the author James Wescott released a comprehensive biography on the artist,When Marina Abramović Dies, to critical acclaim. The artist currently lives and works in New York, NY. Her works are held in the collections of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Museum Ludwig in Cologne, the Rijksmuseum Twenthe in Enschede, and the Reina Sofia National Museum in Madrid, among others.