by Maria Brandt
I never believe what anyone tells me, unless it’s the truth. And I know when it’s the truth because I feel it, like I feel the portal. So when Joey tells me he won’t marry me unless I let him stick it in me this weekend, or when he tells me this country has been ruined by lying traitors, or when he tells me I shouldn’t eat clams, I know he’s telling the truth.
I call it the portal because I’ve always called it the portal. We live in the house my grandparents built, and the portal is in our dining room. It’s where my mother was born forty-seven years ago, and it’s where my grandmother died thirty-six years ago. It’s where Joey and I eat dinner, where we pray, where we used to set up our laptops to look at Facebook.
When I was ten and my grandfather was still alive, he’d tell me stories about the day my grandmother died or my mother was born, right here in the dining room, but his words never made sense, I didn’t know what it meant to be dead or not to be born, I didn’t know what else there was or how any of us could be connected, or even exist. So I’d dig up rocks from the backyard and bring them to the portal. I’d put the rocks on the floor and lie next to them, waiting for them to be sucked into the other side. I’d usually fall asleep, and when I’d wake up my shoulder would hurt but the rocks still would be there. So I started bringing my stuffed animals. I thought maybe my sacrifice needed to be bigger. I remember bringing my stuffed bear once, hiding my face in my hands, half hoping she’d disappear into the portal and I’d have answers, half hoping she’d never disappear because not having answers felt safer. When I stopped hiding my face and my bear was still on the floor, I cradled her in my lap and sang her a song about mothers.
Then I got more extreme. I went into the backyard again but this time I brought a kitchen knife. I sat in the dirt and waited under the tree until an ant crossed my path, branches from the tree stretching across the sky like a halo. It was tough picking up the dead ant, she was so little, but I did it. I carried her into the dining room, my walk solemn, that halo still in my mind, and I smeared her guts into the floor and waited.
I know why I waited. My grandfather had died by then and my mother would brew hot tea and we’d sit at the table, but what I really wanted was to find that place where the living become dead and the dead become living, and I thought I could find what I wanted by smearing that ant’s guts into the floor and waiting. I thought the portal could help me be close to my mother, who was living, to my grandmother, who was dead. I wanted to be close to someone, for real, I just needed the key.
Years later, after my mother moved into an apartment by the hardware store where she worked, Joey and I bought the house. Joey worked at the quarry down the road and sometimes carried home rocks, and I started thinking he might have the key, I started thinking those rocks might be the key because they sparkled a little, like Joey sparkled a little, but Joey also started getting crazy about those lying traitors and then about immigrants, and I know he was telling the truth, I always know when someone is telling the truth, but he didn’t sparkle that much anymore.
One day I sat in the backyard and watched a whole colony of ants try to build something. I pretended they were men at the quarry and thought about throwing sticks at them or maybe burning them but I needed to do my penance for that one ant whose guts I’d smeared into the floor years ago. I thought about Joey while I watched those ants and about how he talked dirt about all those immigrants, and I tried not to mind that, not really, and for a minute he sparkled again. I even tried not to mind when he talked dirt about women. “Joey,” I’d say to myself, “I’m a woman,” but he knew that, of course, he didn’t mean me, and he sparkled even more.
So I left those ants alone, went inside, and sat in the portal. “Grandma,” I said to the walls, “where are you?” I never knew my grandmother, she died when my mom was a girl. I never really knew my mom either. She didn’t die or anything extreme like that, but she was always real busy, volunteering at the church, going to her job at the hardware store, taking care of her new apartment.
I think it’s important we women stick together. I suppose if I were an immigrant I’d think it was important we immigrants stuck together. That’s why I had to do my penance for that ant, because she was kind of like a woman. That’s why I never liked when Joey talked dirt, why he always sounded just a little crazy, even though I know he was being honest. That’s why when Joey came home early one day and found me in the portal I lied to him. That’s why when he told me I wasn’t allowed to look at Facebook anymore because I lied to him, or that he’d stick it in me whenever he wanted, I floated away and thought about mothers.
But now I feel stuck. Because even though I know Joey’s being honest, I’m not sure he’s telling the truth. I like eating clams, and I don’t really like when he sticks it in me, my fingers digging into his skin. And when I sit in the portal, even though the rocks and my stuffed bear and that dead ant never blew into the other side, I still feel connected to my mother, and even to my grandmother, more than I feel connected to Joey even though he used to sit at the dining room table looking at Facebook right next to me. And none of those rocks he brought back from the quarry ever did work like a key.
So I don’t know what to do. I know I don’t want to throw sticks at ants, or at Joey. I know I don’t want to burn any ants or bury any rocks or set fire to the skin on Joey’s back and watch his insides bubble to the surface or his intestines explode into small pieces of rotten flesh. I know I don’t want to stab Joey with a kitchen knife or smear his dead guts into the floor. But I don’t know what I do want.
I’m sitting in the portal right now. “Grandma?” I say. I want her to answer me, so I dig my fingers into my skin. “Mom?” I want one of them to tell me what to do so I can show Joey that those people might not be lying traitors, that when he talks dirt about women or even immigrants he does talk dirt about me, that everything is changing and there’s no such thing as a key, and that even though my grandma is dead I still have the stuffed bear she gave my mom when my mom learned to walk, and that even though my mom is busy she still sits at my table every Tuesday night and brews a pot of hot tea and sometimes we drink in silence and sometimes we try to find words, and that even though Joey doesn’t hold any magic key and my fingers are pressed deep into my skin and that ant from years ago never crossed into the other side, I still know some other side exists.
I’m holding a kitchen knife. I watch a shadow from the tree in the yard move on the floor and in my mind the blood from that dead ant years ago mixes with my blood, not quite like a halo, more like a flame. I might cut myself, just a little, because then I’ll see my blood, because then I’ll know I exist too.
Maria Brandt has published plays, fiction, and nonfiction in several literary magazines, including InDigest, Arts & Letters, Prime Number Magazine,VIDA, and Cleaver. Her collection New York Plays was published by Heartland Plays, her novella All the Words won the Grassic Short Novel Prize, and her full-length play Swans will premiere at Geva Theatre Center’s Fielding Stage June 2018. Maria teaches at Monroe Community College and is a founding member of Straw Mat Writers.