I saw things happen on the hammock of my aunt’s front porch. In the dusk with the smell of hot summer. I hid behind the vine and watched my cousin with her boyfriends. When the hammock stopped squeaking, I’d squint to see if he put his tongue in her mouth. I’d listen for a sinful word and taste the musk-brown excitement I felt but didn’t understand.
Then I had my first monthly period, and the lady across the street explained I was a woman now. Childhood was behind me. I felt a tinge of regret and put on shoes instead of going barefoot as usual.
I walked near the porch in a light summer rain and nearly stepped on the scrawny neck of a baby cardinal. I picked it up and climbed to the first branch of the cherry tree next to my aunt’s house. The tiny bird’s skinny bones trembled in my hand a little, just a mass of something without feathers. It seemed not a bird, but a thing I had complete control of, its life up to me. I set it gently into a crook of the tree.
I noticed pale light trickling out the living room window into the mist. Through the window I saw the sag of the black leather chair still indented from where my uncle sat. That I saw distinctly. The naked figurine Art Deco lamp cast a dim light, but I could see everything plainly. The light on the massive mahogany baby-grand piano, the white of the ivories, the sharp glistening violin strings, the chair and the flowered chintz sofa. And my cousin on that sofa, her chestnut hair askew, her red dress to her neck, and on top of her a youth with his jeans slipped down to his knees, his bare bottom milk-white.
I was twelve, my cousin sixteen, and I had to know what this meant, because everything my cousin did I wanted to do, too. I lived with my aunt and uncle in the shadow of my cousin, my idol since my mother left me at three. I felt the night wind on my face, the bark of the cherry tree scraped at my legs. I shimmied closer to the window, straining, squinting, focusing.
That boy going into my cousin’s body didn’t know of the nights I went from my bed to hers, felt her soft face against mine, made my body a part of hers as close as a kangaroo baby in its mother’s pouch. Red. Even her nightgown and slippers were red, and I wanted all my clothes red like hers.
I looked at the photo on the wall where we sat posed as a string quartet. My uncle with his fat cello between his knees, my aunt at the baby-grand piano, my cousin, with her violin tucked under her chin, and me standing to the side holding a second violin. Suppose my aunt had looked in the room right then and strained to see through the far doorway in the shadows of the room, but the light was too dim.
If I try I can still see my aunt’s face, sad-eyed, graying hair pulled back straight. Wisps of gray hair straggled over faded blue eyes, dull eyes without expectation, except when she looked at my cousin. My uncle, with his bleary, red-rimmed eyes, and gin-soaked breath, sometimes told my cousin little jokes he brought home from work. Sometimes he gave her a playful tap on her rump.
My cousin knew secrets I never learned, though she tried to show me. She cuddled up and kissed her papa, tickled him, made him laugh. From attic to cellar, the house vibrated with her; her violin, her special fragrance, she filled the house even when she was out.
My aunt never talked to me much. I found romance books under her pillow. She and my uncle didn’t sleep together now, if they ever did. We could look in at them, their door never closed, so we knew about the two beds and the table between.
My cousin and I would close our door, shimmy out our window, and gather wild flowers that grew in the vacant lot next door, devil’s paint brushes and field lilies. We painted our faces and reddened out lips.
We grated fool’s gold rocks together, then blew the dust into the air, and watched it float and glitter against the sun, like gold. Sometimes we were animals crawling and creeping in dirt like lizards. Once when we came to the table wearing low cut dresses, feather boas, and high heels with makeup smeared on our faces, my aunt started crying. “This was your idea,” she said to me with an iciness in her voice. But my uncle liked to see us dressed up and said, “Oh, be quiet, they’re just little girls.”
In the den my uncle sat in a black leather chair no one else used. He kept bottles of gin tucked deep in its cushions. My cousin curled up on his lap, a cigarette he rolled himself still smoldering in the side of his mouth, my uncle nearly asleep. She cuddled up close, only crying now and then when he snored and she fell off his lap. I vowed never to smoke or drink and become like him.
Years later after I’d left my aunt’s home, I thought back to this. When my phone didn’t ring, when he said he’d made a mistake and needed time to think after a long weekend together. Then I ran to the store and grabbed a pack of cigarettes to take to bed with my gin. After the last time, I staggered to work and took a hard look at myself. My eyes had dark circles, and I thought, My god, is this me?
The boy on top of my cousin left after while. I never told what I saw. My cousin’s husband soon followed. My aunt fell in love with him first, and I remembered those books in her bedroom. That first night he appeared at the door with flowers, and my aunt thought the roses were for her. I pitied her, but I also wished they were for me. Later he talked about how much my cousin and I were alike, something I found amusing. My aunt hated it if anyone dared to say such a thing. When my cousin got married, my aunt and uncle planned the wedding with a gown from our best bridal shop. My cousin steadied my uncle in their slow march down the aisle with a trail of white mist floating behind them. After the ceremony, the preacher said they could kiss, and I tasted it.
I shouldn’t have been surprised when my cousin’s husband called me. He was like that.
The reason he called me the first time, he said, was to talk about my cousin. I told my aunt and uncle I had to work late. We met at a park and sat on a bench. He talked seriously about his love of my cousin, and everything was fine. We let conversation drift. Then I said I had to run, and he said he did, too.
The next time he called, I thought of my cousin as I put on my briefest panties and a bra that just covered my breasts. I wore a dress that fell off the shoulders. I wondered if it was because I had to have what she had. If we were so much a part of each other, I had to be inside him, too. When I reached the Inn he took me into the room, and I knew what was coming. My cousin’s husband made his tongue go into my mouth, tongue to tongue we met. But did it matter to him that it was me?
We met regularly in a neglected and unattended part of the park, under trees with tall grasses around, the German carousel music in the background. My cousin’s husband kissed my mouth, ran his hand inside my blouse, licked my legs from my ankles to my breasts.
He said to meet him at his car. I crawled into his car and huddled down in the seat. I smoked one cigarette after another and waited until nearly dawn. The cold air cut into me. I cried myself to sleep there in his car. He never came. Near dawn I got out and walked home. I crawled into my room through the window.
They were waiting for me. My aunt shook, her face puffed up with little gray veins popping out on her forehead. I was frightened and found her Nitro. My uncle patted my back and kept saying it was all right with fumes of alcohol and hooded eyes. “You’re just like your mother, a tramp, a mess,” my aunt said. “It’s your fault she made her first mistake on the sofa that night.” I went to my room and sat on the side of my bed. My uncle came into my room, tipsy, but I saw defeat in his eyes.
The night on the couch when my cousin pulled the boy into her and pumped, the light showed his long skinny legs straddling her, his jeans on the floor. When someone nobody ever heard of was entering her, slipping his hand on her breasts, I watched. I knew I must watch.
One night my cousin’s husband had walked around our hotel room, stripped, and rubbed his head. He wanted to talk. Wanted to know why we did this. I told him, “I am me, not like her at all.” And he caught me, pulled me to him. “No, if you must know,” I said, “We played together, that’s all. But I’m not like her, not really.” She’s the cardinal with the crimson breast. I’m the sparrow.
He wanted to go, wanted to stay, wanted us both. He said suddenly, “Remember the first time? I think it was at the park when the Carousel played German songs?”
I’ll choose my location with an artist’s eye, so everyone can see my shrine. I’ll have a birdhouse and a marble bath. A Cardinal will come with his flaming breast and crisp black beard, feast on my sunflower seeds. He’ll rock on branches and strut and boast. In my gaudy flowers and brilliant sunshine, he’ll sing his heart out. His mate will look at him with adoring eyes. I’ll have a cherry tree, and when the baby falls out of its nest I’ll climb to the top and put it back.