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Authors: A. Manette Ansay

Limbo

L
IMBO

A MEMOIR

A. Manette Ansay

This book is dedicated to the first novel
I loved:
The Chosen
by Chaim Potok

It is only by putting it into words that I make it whole…

—
Virginia Woolf

I
n fifth grade
, they divided us for the afternoon. The boys were sent to the gym to play kickball, while we girls crowded into the windowless room next door. The school nurse was there, and so was the guidance counselor, along with a lady we had never seen before. She wore makeup and a tall blond wig, and she was busy setting up a film projector.

The kickballs
thunk-thunked
like distant drums.

“This is going to be gross,” my best friend, Tabitha, said.

In fourth grade, she'd told me what Keri Hommerding had told her: that to make a baby, a man stuck his thing up inside you,
there
. “That's not true,” I insisted, but just to
make sure, I checked with my mother. Instead of denying it, as I fully expected her to do, she'd sighed and removed the pins from her mouth—she'd been sewing a Halloween costume for my brother—and said that there were beautiful explanations of conception and then there were ugly ones, and that Keri Hommerding's was one of the ugly ones. She said that before I was born, she and my father both had gone to church and prayed very hard that God would send them a baby, and because they were very much in love with each other, God had sent them my brother and me.

It was so unlike my mother to lie that both of us blushed until my mother said, “OK?” and put the pins back in her mouth. I crept out of the room, feeling sick to my stomach, for I knew that the truth had to exist in some terrible in-between place. That night, just as I was falling asleep, it came to me like an incubus. It sat on my chest and sucked my breath and there was absolutely nothing I could do. Sex was what Father Stone did to people in the confessional. Hadn't I seen all the mothers and fathers lining up to see him, week after week? Hadn't I watched them step, one by one, behind the red velvet curtain? Hadn't I always wondered what
really
went on in there?

“Are you sure you want a baby?” Father Stone would say, pulling up his long, loose frock under which—all the kids would have bet their lives on this—he wore absolutely nothing at all. “Will you be good parents?”

I'd tried to put the whole business out of my head, but now that my First Confession was drawing near, it was often on my mind. Once, I'd asked my mother if I might delay my First Confession until I was older, but she'd replied that I was mature for my age. In her opinion, I was ready.

“Ladies,” said the lady in the tall, blond wig. Her voice was calm, respectful. A frenzy of kickballs battered the wall; she paused until the sound subsided. “Your bodies are going to start changing soon. Your hips will widen. You'll develop breasts. You'll notice hair growing in places you never had hair before. Some of you may already have noticed some or all of these changes.”

“Barf,” I whispered to Tabitha.

“I told you,” Tabitha said.

But the film the blond lady showed wasn't gross at all. It was a cartoon, and it was very funny, with this wild-eyed crazy sperm darting around after an egg who, looking bored, batted her very long eyelashes. And after the film, each of us got a paper bag of gifts: Kotex of various sizes, a pink, pocket-size calendar, and a slender, matching pen.
Very Personally Yours
was written in gold script across the front of each calendar. The lady explained how to mark the calendars on the first day of our periods, how to calculate when ovulation—the release of an egg—would occur. During ovulation, we could become pregnant if we engaged in
sexual intercourse. Did we all know what sexual intercourse was?

Nobody breathed. I imagined Father Stone's red-knuckled hands tugging his robe up over his knees.

“Sexual intercourse occurred when a husband put his penis inside his wife's vagina and moved it rapidly back and forth,” the lady said. The friction was enjoyable to both. Sperm came out of the husband's penis and fertilized the wife's egg.

Next door, the boys cheered. Somebody had scored.

“Do you have to be married?” Martha Sheinke asked.

“Yes,” the lady said.

All around me, girls were murmuring squeamishly, but I thought I might faint with relief. The lady's voice was so calm, so matter-of-fact, that I knew she was telling the truth. My First Confession would be fine now, it wouldn't be any big deal. I wouldn't have to have sexual intercourse until I got married, and Father Stone would have nothing to do with it.

Did anyone have any questions?

Adrenaline fired through my veins. My hand shot joyfully into the air before I realized it had done so.

“Yes?”

I leaped to my feet. I was grinning, an ear-to-ear foolish grin. All the other girls were looking at me. I didn't know what to say.

“Yes?” the lady said again.

“Can you sleep on your stomach if you're pregnant?” I blurted.

Everybody laughed and I laughed, too, only then I kept on laughing. I couldn't stop. I couldn't sit down. Tears leaked from the corners of my eyes. The other girls looked at me uneasily.

“Can you sleep on your stomach if you're pregnant?” the lady repeated soothingly, as if she understood. “Now that's a good one. I don't know if I can answer that because I've never been pregnant. Do either of you have children?” she asked the school nurse and the guidance counselor. But neither of them did.

“It is probably safe to use common sense,” the lady said, “and assume that the answer is no.”

I
have moved eleven
times in the sixteen years since leaving
home
, a word that to me will always mean southeastern Wisconsin, and the little town where I was raised, and my grandmother's one-hundred-acre farm seven miles to the north. At thirty-six, wading through the shallows of middle age, I have been permanently shaped—and am still held fast—by landscapes that exist in memory alone, though this makes them no less real when they come to me in dreams, when fragments are triggered by a random fact or phrase. Here is my body's lost exuberance. Here is my Catholic faith, that Gothic cathedral, that haunted house. Here are the straight highways, the crops and their
seasons, the blue haze of Lake Michigan: wide-open space beneath a close sky.

It doesn't take much—a look, a phrase—and suddenly I'm a child once more, running hard and fast down a narrow dirt road that has since been developed into another antiseptic side street, the fallow fields surrounding it sold, subdivided, populated by three-bedroom ranch houses, each wrapped in vinyl the color of a hospital gown, each with its garage door shut, an expressionless face, like someone waiting for bad news. Yet there's no sense, as I run, that I'm re-creating something, repainting this landscape as if by numbers, filling in color and sound. I'm simply
here
, I'm
home
, and any return to the present will be informed by what I've seen.

How is it that, for this splendid moment, I'm
able
to run—something I haven't done since I was twenty—elbows pumping, heels striking the earth, carrying myself deeper into a place that is nowhere, nothing, lost, in a body whose unselfconscious sense of movement, whose entitlement to such movement, is lost as well? The part in my hair feels like a cut where the August sun strikes against it, the skin tingling pink. There's a sweet, cold ache in my chest, a lemonade taste in my mouth. I feel as if I could run forever, but, of course, I'm wrong. When the ball of my foot meets a stone, I suck in my breath and hop toward the ditch, where I collapse matter-of-factly to inspect the damage.

A coin of blood, bright as a posy. In its center, a pebble. A scrutinizing eye.

Automatically, I offer my thanks to God, my pain to the Poor Souls in Purgatory. The pebble is God's message, His communication, His way of making me pay attention; I study it the way I'd study a difficult problem at school.
Give thanks in all circumstances
, the Bible says. Perhaps, the pebble kept me from running ahead into the path of a rattlesnake sunning itself in the dust. Perhaps, the pebble has delayed me just long enough to prevent me from crossing Holden Street, where I live, as a speeding car hurtles through. In my world, in the deep, underwater sleep of belief, there is no such thing as an accident. Just because you can't find the reason doesn't mean it isn't there. God is simply testing you, testing the condition of your Faith.

I imagine my Faith like a diamond or ruby, a shining, precious stone. Something that must be protected. Something that can be shattered, stolen, lost. A person who loses their Faith, I know, becomes an
atheist
. The sound of the word gives me the feeling I get when, at slumber parties, my friends and I sneak outside. We walk through the darkness in our flimsy nightgowns, pretending there is somebody following just behind us, a man dressed in black and holding a knife. We can feel his hot breath on our shoulders. We can hear him licking his lips. We stare straight ahead, taking slow deliberate steps, for he's unable to touch any of us—
as long as we all stick together. As long as nobody looks back.

I stand up, brush off my shorts, eager to head back home. Already, the pebble is a story I can tell, a currency to be spent. I'll walk all the way to Holden Street on my heel, careful not to jar the pebble loose. There, I'll find my younger brother and make him watch me dig it out. If he's admiring, I'll let him keep it. If he feigns indifference, I'll tell him about tetanus, enact the grim onset of symptoms, suck my cheeks hollow as starvation sets in. When he's on the verge of telling our mother, tears bright in his eyes, I'll admit that I've had a tetanus shot.

Then, with slow relish, I'll describe the length of the needle, how the nurse shoved it in, to the bone.

 


The cradle rocks
above an abyss,” Vladamir Nabokov writes, “and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness.”

Memory, then, like the switch on the wall. The pull chain on the lamp.

 

My first memory
is of memory itself—and the fear of its loss, that vast outer dark.

One night, as I lay floating in the still, dark pond between wakefulness and sleep, a stray thought breached
the surface like a fish.
You will forget this
. I opened my eyes. To my right, tucked under the covers beside me, was an eyeless Raggedy Ann doll. To my left, on top of the covers, was a large plastic spark plug—a display model that my father, a traveling salesman, had coaxed from some farm dealership and presented to me. My father's gifts were unpredictable and strange: hotel ashtrays, pens with company slogans trailing down their sides, desiccated frogs and snakes he found along the highway, jaws pulled back in agonized smiles. These things populated the bedroom I shared with my two-year-old brother like the grasshoppers and pianos and clocks in a Dali painting, startling the eye from my mother's homemade curtains, the Infant of Prague night-light keeping watch on the bedside table, the child-size rocking chair. The spark plug was nearly three feet long; if you shook it, something mysterious rattled around inside. It was tied by a string to a wooden spool and, during the day, I dragged it clattering after me, the way other girls carried dolls.

You will forget this
.

It was 1969. I was four years old, almost five. The thought swam back and forth in the darkness, gaining speed, and I could see it was an ugly thing, long as the moray eel in the
World Book Encyclopedia
, with rows of needle-sharp teeth. Fully awake now, I sat up, swung my legs off the edge of the bed. Could it be true? Across the
room, my brother slept in the crib that had once been mine. It was the size of a generous icebox, the wood-slatted sides painted light green, and I could not imagine being small enough to sleep comfortably inside it. Yet my mother had pictures to prove that I had, slides I could hold up to the light. A solemn-eyed baby stared back at me.
You
, my mother explained. She said that Mike wouldn't remember being a baby, either. Nobody did.

At the time, we were renting a house in Michigan, forty miles from Detroit. Piggyback trucks rattled over the speed bump on the highway, twenty feet from our porch; railroad tracks divided the gray-faced neighborhood. At night, the slow-moving freight trains passed so close that I could feel the vibrations in my mattress, my chest. It was a sensation I loved. Would there be trains in Wisconsin? I'd wanted to know when my mother explained we would be moving there in May, returning to the area where she and my father had grown up, where their parents and brothers and sisters still lived. Already, she'd started boxing things up. During the day, I wandered from room to room, passing my hands through the empty spaces where, only weeks earlier, the pieces of my life had exhibited themselves, unquestionable as the prayers I said before and after each meal, incontrovertible as God.

Now, to test myself, I imagined everything back where it belonged. I went through the small dark rooms of my mem
ory, moving myself like a game piece, forcing myself to articulate everything I saw, or heard, or smelled, or touched. How could I forget our kitchen with its chipped Formica counter, or the picnic table where we ate, painted pale blue—the Virgin's color—and built into the wall? Or my parents' bedroom with its neat twin beds, and the way I'd catch them holding hands across the open space between them? The morning light coming in through the “sheers”—pale, fancy curtains that I wasn't allowed to touch. The look and feel of my hands just as they were, the right one finally big enough to span a major fourth on the piano.

Everything was there for me, safe in its place. Even the darkness was familiar, bound to the sound of my brother's sleep, his tapioca smell.

Still, just to be sure, I re-created the previous day: rising, dressing, eating breakfast, walking to nursery school with my mother, home again for lunch and a nap, then late afternoon at the piano, and supper, and a bath, and bedtime. I recited, word for word, the books my mother had read to me; I listed the foods I'd eaten. But some parts of the day were less clear than others, and when I attempted to recapture an earlier day with the same intensity, I faltered. Suddenly, I thought of all the times I'd begged my mother to tell me what she'd been like at my age: the first word she'd learned to read, the first song she'd learned to play on the piano.

“I don't remember,” she'd say. Or, “That was a long time ago.”

The truth hit me then: I
would
forget. There was nothing I could do. Someday, I'd be a grown-up woman, and I'd forget all about the girl I was now. It would be as if she'd never existed. I extended my legs, pink in the night-light's glow, and they seemed otherworldly, unattached. Years later, reading
Slaughterhouse-Five
, I encountered Kurt Vonnegut's famous line: “
Listen: Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time
,” and I saw myself, again, on that night, in that room, and at last I had the words to describe exactly what I'd felt.

 


I feel stupid,
” was what I told my mother then, and on the nights that followed, when she'd get up to find out why I'd turned on the light, why I wasn't sleeping.

“But you're
smart
,” she'd say, and we'd stare at each other, despairing, for I was unable to explain what I meant, and she couldn't imagine what was wrong. As soon as she'd leave, I'd sit up again, because without the light, I knew I'd fall asleep. And I didn't want to sleep. I had work to do. I was trying to save us all. By day, my mother was packing up the house; at night, I packed again, in secret. I memorized the layout of the house, the arrangement of the furniture, the furniture itself. In my mind's eye, I opened the kitchen cupboards, the bedroom closets, the vanity over the bathroom sink. I marched around the backyard, marking the location of trees,
nothing the imperfections of the swing set. I sat down at the piano and went over the simple songs I'd learned, and the long melody played with both hands in unison that I was endlessly composing. Then I recited events, beginning with the most recent day and working my way back in time as far as I could. After a week or so, this litany became like a prayer, a sequence of words I could rattle off without thinking, the syllables slurred, the intonations unvaried.

The trouble was this: with each passing day, new events had to be added. This made the litany grow longer and longer. At nursery school, I sat quietly, trying to limit the things I'd be obliged to remember that night. My mother took me to see Dr. Heitch, and I sat on a table covered in white paper, staring down at his bright green pants, which reminded me of Mr. Greenjeans on Captain Kangaroo. This detail, too, was duly noted, packaged in a coil of words, sealed and labeled for the future. Someday, the grown-up person I'd become might want this image back. She might, for whatever unforeseen reason, decide she needed these things I was storing away with an archivist's care. And if she did, they would be waiting for her, just like our plates and cups and photographs would be waiting for us when we got to Wisconsin, wrapped up in pieces of newspaper.

 

We moved in
June, first to my maternal grandmother's farm for the summer, and then, at the end of August, to my
paternal grandparent's house in the nearby town of Port Washington, where we lived while our house on Holden Street was being built. One evening after supper, my father took my brother and me to see the newly poured foundation. He pointed out where the walls would go, and the stairs leading up to the second story. The house would have wall-to-wall carpeting, a two-car garage, central heat. From now on, we'd even have our own bedrooms—what did we think of that?

“The Tiger needs his own cage,” he said, dropping a hand on my brother's shoulder.

Within a few weeks, the house had floors. The skeleton of walls appeared and then, remarkably, walls themselves, with copper pipes and insulation and Sheetrock. There was a fireplace big enough to sit in. Ceiling fixtures. Toilets. We brought scraps of lumber back to my grandparent's house and carried them down to the basement where my grandmother never went. There we played for hours, designing houses, then knocking them down. Upstairs, my grandmother sat in her chair, strangling her rosary between her long, white fingers.

I no longer lay awake at night, trying to remember things, perhaps because there was nothing about my grandparents' house I particularly wanted to remember. Still, I clung to the old litany, chanted it as if it were a charm, a magical incantation as I fidgeted through the Lawrence Welk Show,
as I sat through my grandparents' endless mealtime bickering, as I stared up into the bright orange clusters of berries that hung from the small, regularly spaced trees in front of my grandparents' house. The berries were poisonous, my mother explained. They were
decorative
berries, which meant they were there to look at, not to eat. At my other grandmother's farm, there had been mulberries, gooseberries, raspberries, blackberries. I'd eaten my fill of them and beyond, eaten until my lips were raw, sour-tasting against the sweet, and my other grandmother had laughed whenever I'd stuck out my brilliant red tongue.

One day, it occurred to me that each of my grandmothers had the
right kind
of berries. I tried to explain this to my mother, but without the word
symbol
, we wound up exchanging another round of despairing looks. Yet the thought left me wonderfully satisfied. It was delicious, like solving a puzzle, like having the last word.

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