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Sunday, August 19, 2012

Love like Saltwater

by LeeAnn Olivier

As I study my genealogy chart, I love to say the languid names of my Cajun ancestors, names like Jean Baptiste Olivier and Marie Magdelaine Monpierre, liquid names that curl in the mouth like minnows, then unfurl and swim off of the tongue. I come from a family of fishermen. My immigrant relatives made their living catching silver fins and tiger prawns in the murky coastal netherworld of Bayou Black, the swamp singing in their veins, as lush as mellifluous green rivers.

On a still, sweltering Sunday afternoon in August of 1856, before hurricanes had female names, a violent storm ravaged Terrebonne Parish where my ancestors lived on the Louisiana coast, killing over two hundred people. The hurricane destroyed the hotel and gambling houses at nearby Isle Derniere, the island left bereft, void of vegetation and split in half, the once bustling seaside resort transformed into a feral haven for brown pelicans and black-backed herons, royal terns and laughing gulls. Rains flooded the Mermentau River and destroyed crops along the bottom lands. Saltwater soaked rice fields in Bayou Black, stripping fruit from orange trees, smearing the air with fragrant swirls of tangy brine and sweet citrus. Survivors clung to bales of cotton and washed ashore as the storm subsided. My great-great grandmother Delphine, whose name is a French-Greek hybrid of “dolphin,” would have been fifteen when the hurricane hit.

I imagine Delphine. I imagine Saturday night before the great storm, Delphine—thin as an egret wading through a tangle of bible-black vines—crept to the lip of the pier, dipped her net, and waited for crawfish. I imagine on Sunday morning after dawn, the sun turned the moor to loam, and a violet sheen skimmed the gulf. I imagine Delphine sprawled on the front porch, watching the veined sky glower and sink and watching the vultures wheel and dive like black angels. I imagine that my great-great grandmother, like me, was a Catholic girl who harbored a secret pagan heart. On Sunday afternoon, the storm loomed. Delphine’s limbs aquiver, she whirled and danced like a dervish while the sea swelled. She was Hurricane Delphine, deciding whom to love when she saw what could crawl from the shambles unscathed, who could cling to a bale of cotton and sweep ashore, his swamp-green eyes singed with salt, his blue-black hair braided with seaweed—her own personal Poseidon. This is how she would choose her mate. I like to pretend this is how she met Pierre Zephirin Olivier, my great-great grandfather.

A century and a half later, their ghosts dance on my ribs, their maritime blood brewing inside me, imbuing me with a hunger for salt and brine and sun. Perhaps this is why I swam as soon as I could walk, staying under the water until my flesh puckered and my green eyes burned, flicking my imaginary fins, twirling like a drunken ballerina. A timid child too scared to climb trees or ride bicycles, I was always the first to dive, fetching pennies that glimmered like buried treasure at the bottom of the pool. Once I even swam with dolphins off the Mexican coast of Isla Mujeres, my hands gliding easily over their satin spines as they keened and twittered, their lithe, powerful bodies coiling around me, weaving human and dolphin skin into one skein. It felt like home.

Shortly after I learned to swim, in order to make myself useful to my father, I figured out how to mix his martinis—gin rather than vodka, shaken instead of stirred, laden with green olives and poured over ice. I remember the heady, acrid smell of the liquor, the clink of ice against the tumbler. I remember how he chilled the olives in champagne until they were smooth as emeralds bobbing in frothy bubbles. I used to dive for the olives submerged at the bottom of his rocks glass, and I would suck the juice out of them, rolling them around on my tongue, loving their briny, gin-and-champagne-soaked taste. They tasted like the ocean, like the swamp where my father’s people lived, like fishermen, like olive skin and sea-green eyes and ink-dark hair…like my father himself.

While most of the girls I knew received cars and college educations from their fathers, the Olivier genealogy chart is the only thing my father ever provided for me after I turned eighteen and he no longer had to pay child support. My father and I never knew each other very well, and all we shared was the same saltwater in our veins. A born seaman, he served as a lieutenant commander in the Navy and was often stationed overseas at exotic-sounding places like Guam, and Bahrain, and Okinawa. When I was in elementary school, he lived in Japan for two years, so I became obsessed with that seafaring country—their painted Kyoto dolls, their sushi rolls and squid salad, their modular beds as compact as cupboard drawers. When my father would return to my mother and me in Shreveport, he didn’t have much use for me outside of my bartending skills. He found me too fey, too fanciful, too peculiar. He called me a “bleeding heart liberal.” He called me “an egg about to crack.” Then he left us for good.

My father never really knew his father either—Alcide Olivier, nicknamed “Frenchie"—because he died when my father was a little boy. In the only photograph I have ever seen of my grandfather, he stands, haggard and swarthy, next to my elegant grandmother, his shock of sable hair mussed and oily, a hand-rolled cigarette dangling from his mouth. Working as a roughneck on a Gulf Coast oil rig, Frenchie traded in a life of fishing for a life of drilling. He swapped the salt air for sulphuric acid, and his blackened, sea-starved lungs couldn’t take it. So I suppose it isn’t my father’s fault that no one ever showed him how to be a dad.

In the French folktale, “Love Like Salt,” a king asks his daughter how much she loves him. She replies, “I love you as much as fresh meat loves salt.” The king is so perplexed by his daughter’s unusual answer that he disowns her and banishes her from the palace. Years later the banished daughter marries a prince from a neighboring kingdom and invites her father to the wedding. Still desperate to please her father, she requests that the food for the wedding feast be prepared without any salt. But the king spits the food from his mouth, declaring it “tasteless.” The king then embraces his daughter, admitting he was wrong to misinterpret her words. For the rest of the wedding banquet, the king relishes plump shrimp curled in crimson sauce, fat scallops soaked in butter, and brine-drenched oysters dipped in sea salt, affirming they are the best foods he has ever tasted.

Unlike the mythical French king, I doubt my estranged father will ever appreciate my odd way of looking at the world or will ever forgive me for being who I am. But I can try to forgive him. After all, his blood is the salt that flavors my food. He gave me more than a genealogy chart, more than a lilting list of French names printed in black font on twenty pages of white paper. He gave me a rich history from which I can weave stories, spinning them around in my mind like dolphins spiraling up from the bottom of the sea. He gave me sea gods washing ashore after great storms. He gave me Delphine fishing under the feverish flambeau of the bayou, luminous as a selkie drying her silken skin in the sun. He gave me the water.

LeeAnn Olivier is a poet and essayist whose     work has recently appeared in Stone Highway Review, damselfly press, Sojourn, SWAMP, Jelly Bucket, and Illya's Honey. A Ph.D. student at the University of Texas at Dallas, she is currently working on her creative dissertation—a collection of poems exploring myth, magic, and a Louisiana childhood. Olivier teaches English full-time at Tarrant County College and lives in Fort Worth with her partner John and their canine children: Eddie, Oscar, and Bijou.  “Love Like Saltwater” originally appeared in damselfly press.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

She Leaves Me, She Leaves Me Not

by Samina Najmi

Yesterday we drove the three hours to San Francisco airport together.  Twenty-six hours later, you’ve called to tell me that you made it safely across North America, the Atlantic Ocean, Europe, and the Middle East—back to Karachi, our megapolis on Pakistan’s southern coast.  Sajeda, your housekeeper of fifteen years, has made you a cup of strong, black tea sweetened with honey.  Once again your day unfolds thirteen hours ahead of Pacific Standard Time.    

 I did not permit you any goodbyes in Fresno.  As we loaded your bags into the blue minivan, your bottle of water, your string cheese and banana for the journey, and as your face betrayed the weight of the parting, I told you gruffly that this was no time for self-indulgence, we had a plane to catch.  I snapped instructions—use the bathroom, put on your jackets—at my son and daughter, your eldest grandchildren, the ones who have learned from you the right-to-left Urdu alphabet, learned to share your taste for the sweet corn kernels, buttered and peppered, that you’d sauté for them when they came home from school, ravenous.  At the steering wheel, I saw without turning my head toward the passenger seat how you looked at the garage door closing down on our two months of togetherness, how, as we pulled out of the driveway, your gaze lingered on the bountiful oranges peeping out from the backyard, the tips of the tall cypress trees tickling our blue Fresno skies in early February.

Your son, my brother, met us at the International Terminal with a copy of your just-published book, your Urdu translation of a Harvard psychologist’s work on unwanted thoughts and our human attempts to suppress them.  My brother and his wife, your daughter-in-law, brought a chocolate cake and three candles so you could be part of your younger granddaughter’s birthday; their San Francisco home with its steep stairs a world beyond your reach.  When we sang happy birthday, two gray-haired women looked up from their sandwiches and joined in.  They were passengers like you, their eyes soft with recognition at your attempts to hold on to the flesh of your flesh even as the plane prepared to carry you eight thousand miles away.  The three children who began leaving you thirty years ago, for their undergraduate degrees, their master’s, their doctorates; for their careers in the academy, in the Silicon Valley, in clinical psychology; for their marriages to Americans, black, white, and Korean; for their children growing up without thoughts of Karachi.  And you have done your best to shrink space and time, to partake of the graduations, weddings, divorces, and births.  Except for the five years after 9/11 when the world came between us.  In those five years you buried your sister, my aunt, only a year older than you, and your brother-in-law, my uncle, friend of forty years.  In those five years, while shingles torched half your face (and burns you still), rheumatoid arthritis pounced on shoulder and wrist, gnarled your toes, and gnashed at your knees—the searing pain, the contorted limb—a mock rigor mortis, alive and afire.  You let go of your school, the one you began in our living room thirty-seven years ago for your four-year-old daughter, my younger sister.  You relinquished the love of four hundred children.  That daughter, my sister, sponsored your Green Card so you would never again be denied entry into our lives.  And you sliced your years down the middle, six months here and six months there, the wholeness of hearts bridging the fracture.

But this time Karachi kept you the whole year.  This time you arrived at San Francisco airport thinking, Let me see them in their American lives one last time.  This time you arrived in a wheelchair.  This time I was glad not to greet you at the airport.  I waited for my brother, your son, to bring you to me in Fresno, where you will stay, for the first time unable to visit your other children and your nephew and niece, my cousins.  So they will drive to Fresno, a familial Mecca, for hurricane visits from points north and south, including your toddler grandson, my nephew, from San Diego, who will tell you that his knee hurts too.  You will look in wonder at the lights on our five-foot Christmas tree, the one we’ve held on to year after year, though my children, your grandchildren, are catching up to it in height.  With your one good hand—the other shriveled up since your crawling days when you dipped it into steaming chai water—you will touch the ornaments they made in preschool, kindergarten, fourth grade, and marvel at them with your elementary schoolteacher’s eye.  Right before Christmas Eve we will whisk you away from landlocked Fresno for just one night because your son-in-law, my husband, will want you to see the Pacific Ocean again, from the wharf at Avila Beach when the horizon has turned the color of fresh peaches to the west, lavender ribbons flung east.

At four or five o’clock in the morning, while I press keys on my laptop in the family room, I will hear the hallway door creak open, the sound of your slippered feet scraping their labored way to the kitchen on our hard Mexican tiles.  You will not say, and I will not ask, what it took to position your feet on the guestroom floor this morning, how much courage, how much faith that your legs, warped into semi-circles like the necks of guitars left out in the humid Karachi sun, will carry you one more day.  When you pass through the family room, I will get up to kiss your cheek, and you will look into my face the way my grandmother, your mother, used to—wistful and wondering, as though I’m a pleasant surprise.  I will go back to my laptop and try to measure this morning’s pain by the time it takes you to reach for the milk in the refrigerator, unfold the wax paper in the cereal box, eat just enough so you can swallow the painkillers that your stomach will mutiny against all day.  When daylight spreads in our backyard, you will raise the shades of the family room, your left hand coaxing the reluctant right arm upward by the elbow, your eyes eager for the sight of our untamed sago palms and our pool shaped by the memory of a lake in Armenia, an exile’s imagining of home.  You’ll make your slow, seesawing way toward the pool’s blueness, wrapped in your bunny-pink robe, with cat food for Tub-Tub, the black and white stray who answers your Urdu call as brightly as your grandchildren do.  The pain will relent a little in the course of the day, and you will come with me in the blue minivan to see those two grandchildren, my children, on and off the yellow school bus, always vigilant with the remote control so you can relieve me of the task of closing the garage door behind us. 

Between the school bus hours, we will savor my sabbatical, have little meals of hardboiled eggs and steamed edamame together, and you will make me cardamom tea because you know it is a taste of Karachi I’m unable to replicate.  We will do our separate readings and writings until late afternoon when the winter sun shines half-heartedly through your window.  Then we’ll prop ourselves up in your bed, and you will read aloud from the two-volume memoir that your mother, my grandmother, left us so many years ago.  The memoir she wrote in her colloquial Urdu over the course of twenty years, which your journalist friend devoured all in one night—a vivid social history of Bihar!—she raved, of that patch of India my grandmother still yearned for five decades after Partition.  The memoir that was never published in her lifetime.  You will read to me for two hours at a time, and we will wonder how she could bear to remember so much, the details as fine as her grape-leaf embroidery on the placemats she made for my table one summer.  We will puzzle over the conventions of her time and place, laugh like unruly schoolgirls at her comic sketches.  We will read her heartbreaks between the lines.  Know ourselves a little better.

And when the day draws to an end, when your grandchildren and I have kissed you goodnight, my husband, your son-in-law, will pop his head through your accordion doors and ask if you’d like a new movie to watch.  You’ll insert the DVD into the player in your bedroom, and Victorian men and women in large hats and flowing garments will flit across the screen all night, a hum barely audible, but companionship enough as you lie on the guest-bed, adrift between waking and sleeping.  Then it’s five o’clock in the morning again, and you know I’m in the family room, on your way to the kitchen, pressing keys on my laptop.…

Already a memory—our two months together, living as though I never left Karachi, you never grew older, space and time just tricks of our idle imaginations.  You leave, as you have left so many times before, but this time you leave me a template for my tomorrows, of grace and tenderness, whatever the pain—Because if I live long enough, the remaining blessings will disappear, too—the mind curious, heart eager, eyes singing small beauties.  I muffle my goodbyes at San Francisco’s International Terminal, as your son, my brother, the one who chose business class to soften what your legs must suffer—Because when my time comes, how will I spend on my comfort if I never spent on hers?—as that son, that brother, waves to the wheelchair attendant, who checks your name off his list with one brusque stroke, and, before I can believe the sight of you in a wheelchair—my dancing mother!—he has whisked you off toward the gate beyond our reach, your grandson, my son the soccer player, running and running on strong, sturdy legs, determined to catch up with you, long after I have let you go. 

Samina Najmi teaches multiethnic U.S. literature at California State University, Fresno.  She has written scholarly articles on race, gender, and war in American literature and edited or coedited three books.  A late bloomer, she discovered the rewards of more personal kinds of writing in 2011 when she stumbled into a CSU Summer Arts course that taught her to see.  Samina was raised in Pakistan and England, and now lives with her husband and two children in the San Joaquin Valley, eight thousand miles away from her mother.