My name is Katherine. For 29 years I’ve lived in a city on the west coast of the United States, famous for its earthquakes. I have a job on the nineteenth floor of a building in the Financial District. In strong winds the building shudders and sways. In movie theaters I always take an aisle seat.
I want to adopt a dog this year. I plan to name him Scrappy. I dropped out of school in the tenth grade. I’ve read all of Dostoevsky and most of Tolstoy. I live alone.
My mother was severely bipolar.
A man I knew told me I had storybook hair. When I was nine years old a friend of my parents called me husky. He watched me in a way that made me uncomfortable. I am afraid of spiders.
The bagpipes make me cry.
I don’t show my teeth when I smile because they are unattractive. I met two young women from Wisconsin yesterday, both schoolteachers. They seemed to think I was interesting and we promised to stay in touch. When I was 13 my family moved from California to Scottsbluff, Nebraska. We lived in a small, beige apartment with a chain grocery on one side and a dead cornfield on the other. There was nowhere to hide from each other.
I have a good arm and played right field in eighth grade.
My father’s people came over from Ireland. He was 48 when I was born, my mother 26; Eugene O’Neill died in that same year. I am a Pisces Snake. On occasion people call me beautiful. My mother was severely bipolar. Birdsong makes me smile.
I have one sibling, my younger brother. I used to have a half-hour interview show on local radio. In my early 20s I was raped. No charges were pressed as I believed I was at fault. There are many small toys in my apartment including a green plastic soldier, who is on his knees pointing a rifle.
Several years ago I bought a new sleeping bag for a homeless man who slept next to a laundry vent on my block, without a blanket, without a pillow, without a cardboard box. He still lives on the sidewalk. I never saw the sleeping bag again.
A man I met on a bus and fell in love with called me erudite. I had to look this word up in the dictionary and blushed when I read the definition. I used to own a house in the city where I live. I was arrested for shoplifting when I was 16.
My mother was severely bipolar. When I was 15 I lost my virginity to a surfer named Frank and taught myself how to drive in the family car, a beater Chevy Nova sedan. There was nothing interesting about this car other than the fact that the emergency brake handle had broken and had been replaced with a pipe wrench.
One Sunday morning in the mid 1990s I was cited by a California Highway Patrol officer for speeds in excess of 100 miles per hour. I was riding an Italian motorcycle custom-painted ’89 Corvette Yellow. Often in dreams I am running barefoot along the Pacific coast highway, cars rushing past on my left, the sea churning below on my right.
Edward lives downtown on the Kearny Street sidewalk and loves to read. I bought him a pair of bright blue 2.5 strength reading glasses. He likes anything but romance novels and biographies. Last time we spoke he was finishing a ragged paperback copy of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Edward told me he quit crack cocaine years ago; he smells of cheap wine and calls me darlin’.
I am unable to recall years of my life, unable to connect the dots into a chronological shape. My résumé is chronologically sound but lacks evidence of any particular career ambitions. I was once chosen from a field of more than 200 candidates for a position for which I had no experience.
In seventh grade I had to sew a dirndl skirt for home economics; I received a failing grade. I don’t know if my mother knew how to sew. I had a brief affair with a man who was becoming a woman. He had breasts and a penis and wanted to become a police officer.
When I was three years old I was hospitalized with pneumonia. There is a photograph of me in the hospital bed being interviewed by a local television reporter; my tiny fingernails had been painted red by someone and look like precious stones.
When I started menstruating in seventh grade I had to steal Kotex from my mother’s bottom drawer. I could not ask her for help because her circuits had overloaded again. I hemorrhaged for five days every month and thought this was normal. One day in health class I fainted at my desk and my father had to pick me up from the nurse’s office. We did not talk about why I had fainted — we may not have talked at all — but the next day a large box of Kotex appeared in the bedroom I shared with my brother.
The abbreviated medical terminology for abortion is, TA — therapeutic abortion.
Alvin walks California Street from the waterfront to Lafayette Park and back all day long. His gray hair used to hang in matted ropes to his waist; now it is growing back in scruffy patches after the City cleaned him up. Alvin’s back is so hunched it is an effort for him to meet my eyes when we speak. He has a high- pitched reedy voice and fingernails like broken talons. His sneakers flop like clown shoes but they aren’t funny. Alvin never asks for help but always accepts what is given with a reedy thank-you, the first syllable pitched up, the second down.
I speak softly to trees.
I taught myself how to type. I have traded sex for money. My first pet was a cat named Tootsie, and I always use “name of first pet” as my secret question. A psychiatrist once told me in our first session that I was the most ambivalent person he’d ever met. I held a friend as he died of AIDS. I was arrested for drunken driving on December 30, 1979 and spent the night in a jail cell. I often dream about living underwater — there are cities made of coral, fish sheer as oiled paper, ocean rains…water within water, and I am able to breathe more freely than on land.
As a girl I had suffocating asthma attacks. My father would sit with me as we waited for Dr. McLaughlin, who made house calls even in the middle of the night. My father used to call me honey pet.
On very quiet mornings the trees sometimes answer.
A series of small, white triangular scars marks the skin of my inner forearm. When you touch the point of a very hot iron to skin, the vast and nameless pain within becomes focused, identifiable, and the resulting injury is pleasingly geometric.
I have been poor enough to steal food. I have been asked for my autograph. I turned 58 today. My mother died at 59. I am afraid of loud noises. I never met my grandparents. My mother was placed in an orphanage at the age of three, or six. No records can be found to confirm. There is no one left to ask.
I found a photograph of my mother this morning. It is a wrinkled 3″ by 3″ black and white shot of her sitting on a rock overlooking an ocean, some ocean. She is wearing slacks, a white blouse and a sweater, white socks and saddle shoes. Her hair frames her face in soft waves and she is wearing eyeglasses. She is smiling at the person taking the picture.
She is smiling.
This life is a radiant mosaic, composed of ice and fire, jewels and grit. This precious life, my own.