A Shame, Then
About that ice cave. When I was fourteen I'd hike a mile and a half up the mountain, carrying the detritus of my menstruation to stuff into the mountain's cold bowel, where the air was so crisp it was preindustrial. I knew I was insane and I had no other choice. I couldn't have my mother or my father know I got my period. According to my subconscious calculations, they couldn't be trusted. I had an outsized desire to be taken seriously, for a fourteen year old. It made me invisible.
A shame, then, that it was around this time I started working in my father's bar Teddy's. Maybe shame is the wrong word. Maybe it was more like a trick. Put a serious girl in subservience to old (older) men while they got drunk and were comfortable to express every nonsense hurt, every cynical explanation about other people's failures. They talked as if I was not there and was not female. Maybe I wasn't. But I did have my first really nice notebook. A Leuchtterm. It was green. I didn't yet have my own thoughts worthy enough to write down (or so I thought) so I wrote down theirs, verbatim, and they didn't know. Stuff like, "That librarian shouldn't bend over."
That was my father's best friend Lou, not that my father ever thought deeply enough about his personal relationships to rank them. Lou was my fourth best friend. I ranked my intimate relationships all the time.
Another one, this time by Jeffrey, "A tire busted up my hydraulic river wheel, again."
I learned that Lou liked more ice than everyone else, that Dusty expected a beer to be put before him before he was finished. That I was not to interrupt but to casually fill awkward silences with interested questions but not to expect the answers to be directed back at me. I got really good at expecting nothing.
So that hike to the ice cave every month, or in my case, every twenty-four days, was a reset to my identity, to who I was when no one was looking. I can't give an example of this feeling, only the metaphor of how a drop of water will flow down and away in search of more water to join.
I biked to and through the preserve entrance and lay my bike down in the grass (my mother's old Hussy). From there I'd hike up a fieldy hill, stop to look at the "penthouse view" as dubbed by some guidebook, while the morning turned blue. Inside the forest it was still dark but soon that turned blue too as I walked along a gravel path then peeled off into a foot trail. I'd walk uphill forty-five minutes as the catbirds and blue jays woke up and made their racket before the sun and work of the day quieted them.
At not quite the top, rock formations played out geometry against each other, and it was between these formations temperatures dropped from cool to freezing depending on the world outside. I came to prefer a particular cave. I'd slip down between a crevice into a pocket. I'd crawl on my stomach about six feet as the rock above me slanted down toward a distant point. I'd stuff my plastic bag of nonbiodegradable feminine trash between boulder and ground. Shimmy out backward, spider-woman up the crevice walls, descend down the mountain. I did this for a year, looked forward to the excursions, when I felt strongest after my whole gross painful period was over and I could be myself again, whatever that was.
But then the July trek happened, with real feel over ninety in the barely morning. Gnats orbited my head like cartoon stars for the hike's duration. I got so annoyed, I could feel my blood pressure rise for the first time, gaining an understanding of the corporeal turmoil of adulthood. When I got to the cave, I half-assed the drop-off. It was the last time.
That was the day Ted arrived at the bar, coincidental namesake in tow. My dad had been leaving me alone so much, I had become default manager. Perhaps this felt too neglectful, even for him. At nineteen years old, Ted seemed like a man to me. He came in with my father, like they were pals, and even though I had never seen him before he had the demeanor of a fixture. Everyone else acted like they already knew him.
All of these changes, my hormones and the heat, new blood and old territory, meant I developed, through no conscious effort, banter, sarcasm, wit. I said things like "We deserve it," when Jeffrey commented on an unseasonably mild morning, and "That's a lesson you only learn once," when Ted got shocked from the Schaefer's neon sign by the bathroom. It became impossible to say anything sincerely. Ted challenged every opinion I bothered to articulate, and some that I hadn't, like he was doing me a favor. I read Catcher in the Rye, he asked if I liked it, I said yes, he said it's terrible. I assumed he had this opinion because he read it. It didn't occur to me to question this.
Everyone got a big kick out of everything that happened in Teddy's.
Like when I was seventeen and Jeffrey learned he was a quarter Lenape Indian. He came in one day, said Guess what, and Dusty said, You got probed again (Jeffrey believed and saw and interacted with aliens and UFOs). Jeffrey said No, I took a DNA test, I'm twenty-five-percent native. My grandmother was having an affair with so-and-so. And Lou was like, That explains it! In reference to Jeffrey being extraterrestrial-curious, and Jeffrey was like, It sure does! Jeffrey was already the tavern clown but now that was played for racism. In my notes I have many instances of Jeffrey not being in the room and someone noting that he was such a good sport. Doubt they ever said that about me. I know they never said that to him.
The only one who didn't tease Jeffrey was Elvis, a Brazilian who came to upstate New York when he was twenty-five. He didn't complain, didn't say much at all except to exclaim encouragement. The night after Jeffrey made his big reveal, a spring hurricane landed on the outskirts of town. Elvis and I were the only ones in the bar. He gestured to the pool table. I told him I never played. I was too intimidated. I told him that, too. He racked the balls, made a show of how his right hand gripped the middle of the pool stick and the tip rested in the crook of his left thumb. Broke, three balls went down. He retrieved them out of the pockets, racked, handed the pool stick to me and had me try. I missed, I slipped, I barely got the balls to budge, over and over until I was able to make them scatter like teens running from a cop. Elvis taught me as the rain came down so hard I was scared. He taught me without touching me once. Ever after I had the urge to cuddle up on him. I did not know what to do with that feeling because Elvis was short and had the worn looks of poverty, less teeth, greasy hair, a missing fingernail. I could not tell if he had once been good looking, way back when. The feeling would come over me as I wiped the counter and caught him in the corner of my eye, staring out the window as the rest of the men laughed and coughed.
Elvis was my third best friend.
Not long after the hurricane the county passed an ordinance that limited the amount of trash each household could create: a thirteen-gallon bag a week. We couldn't send our trash to far-off lands anymore. There was no more room. This was unimaginable to us, almost as unimaginable as producing less trash. The men complained about it. The complaining animated them. They started scheming how and where they would put their trash, who to pay off to avoid paying fines.
Jeffrey was part of the town council, which had nothing to do with this decision. But as a volunteer government participant and halfhearted environmentalist, he became the object of the bar's ire. Lou said to him, "We can't go back to a utopia that never existed." I recorded this in caps, with an editorial question "Where did he get that from?" And then a transcription of Ted theorizing about the government implanting the idea of aliens in the most gullible of citizenry to cover up their surveillance programs and hidden wars.
I thought of the trash I left in the mountain a couple of years before. I knew I had to retrieve it and dispose of it properly, in my father's Dumpster.
It was May and hot.
I started early in the morning. I walked across the field that was blooming with bull thistle, Queen Anne's lace, tansy, and, as I got further into the woods, Indian pipe. I liked that I could identify what was growing around me, something I didn't remember learning from my mother, but must have, before rum had turned her to mush. There was a recent rain that had left the trail muddy. Some parts were newly lush with bulbert fern. I heard a red-tail hawk in the distance, saw a lot of fallen hemlock trees.
The ice cave was not how I remembered it. It was muddier and wilder. I noticed a large branch strategically placed to the side of the opening, as if someone had used it to shimmy down like a pole, which I did. I got to the bottom of that cave, crawled on my stomach to go under another boulder to where I used to stuff my garbage. I could no longer fit. My hips were too wide. I thought I could see an old plastic bag under the leaves, graying and fragile, but I couldn't reach it, not even with a stick.
I climbed out. I felt a guilt in my gut, like I was responsible for the whole earth dying. I walked down the mountain, absently swatting at the halo of bugs, sweating behind my knees and lower back. When I got to the bottom, where the path turned into loose gravel as if to alert you that the hard part was over, I passed a couple of women walking their dogs.
That evening I came into the bar just as Jeffrey was telling Ted that the DNA test was a "mix-up." The grandfather he had always known was his again. Lou said, "That explains it." I had this guilt, but I also had a feeling of calm that was new to me. I began walking to the ice caves as often as I could, always in the morning, empty-handed now. I saw the same two women walking their dogs when I descended. They looked at me as though I were familiar, which by the end of the summer I was. At the bar I took the men in stride. When Ted asked why I was wearing all black, I said, "I'm on my period" even though I wasn't.
lives in New Paltz, New York. Her short-story collection "Murder" was published by 421 Atlanta in 2016.