plain china: best undergraduate writing

Volume One : Issue One


by Shauna Galante

Curves #26 by Michael Specht Curves #26 by Michael Specht

She was my sister, and I wanted to keep her in my elbow crook. I didn’t want her dug out like a splinter, like she didn’t share my DNA. If we wouldn’t have to get monogrammed necklaces so our friends could tell us apart, then I at least wanted to keep her around as a talisman. A traveling Buddha, or a new potato. She was part of me, a smaller me, covered in skin as thick as a heel. I wore my sleeves rolled up because I liked her.

One morning out of the blue, my father put down the telephone and Scotch-taped a feather to the calendar square for the day he’d scheduled the surgery. Moving around him, I refilled the teakettle from the tap. I wasn’t about to ask.

“Baby grackle,” he said to me, nodding at the shoebox on the kitchen counter. “Strange lookin’ critter.”

I didn’t particularly feel like looking.

“Dad,” I said, exasperated, “you are incorrigible. You really have to stop doing that.” He was exasperating. The refrigerator door was cluttered with slimy leaves and gypsy moths, wings pinned at full spread. In a clean jelly jar next to the stove, fat, tufted caterpillars lay curled around the stick legs of a decapitated praying mantis.

“Doing what?”

“Bringing in dead things from the yard.”

“He wasn’t dead when I found him,” my father said morosely. “I wanted to help him. I think he died in his sleep.”

We peered into the box. The bird’s guts hung out of its breast, seeping greenish juice onto the cardboard.

When the kettle boiled he lifted it off the stove without turning the burner off and went to water the shriveled mums on the windowsill. Curlicues of steam rose from the soil and the dead plant sank an inch in the clay pot. My father shook his head. Then he took my leftover coffee grounds and pulled a second cup from the muck.

The day I turned ten my father put on a home movie of our birth, which happened in the half-bath, on the mica-speckled celadon tile. Then he told me that my mother had eaten two tabs of acid just before she went into labor.  In her third trimester she had read a book about fractal cosmology and markered a Sierpinski gasket on one wall of the living room, triangles upon triangles. It sucked her in like a funhouse tunnel every night after dinner.

“The universe,” she’d tell my father solemnly, “is a giant head of broccoli. Or cauliflower. Any day now the entire human race could be dislodged from between someone’s teeth and whisked away on a string of wintergreen floss.”

On the tape she lay wheezing, limbs akimbo and seeming to stretch on forever, like an alien cephalopod’s. When we slipped from between her legs, sallow and quick as a pineapple on a waterslide, the camcorder clattered to the floor and slid around in a thin film of soapsuds and amnion.

From the corner of the frame, my upside-down mother announced, “Two broccoli flowers.” She named me Bruce after my dad and my still-born twin sister Darlene, after herself, after her own mother.

It should have been obvious then, when she gave her name to the dead daughter and doomed the healthy one to bear not only an eternally fetal twin conjoined at the inside of her elbow, but the schoolyard torture of living as a girl named Bruce. Over time Darlene withered and scabbed, and the curve and pock of her baby Buddha belly, her individual fingers, were less discernable beneath layers of white and pink. The living Darlene was suffering, though I admit I never noticed; was too busy hating her guts for tending to fresh grief every time a classmate demanded, “Bruce is a boy’s name! Are you a boy or a girl?” to notice. Then one spring afternoon she mixed me an egg cream at the kitchen table, went into the half-bath, knocked a five-pound dumbbell blindly into the back of her skull and drowned herself in the pale green sink.

“We’re in this together, Bruce,” my father said, just before they put me under on the starchy linen. He’d said it while driving to the hospital, too, and I had almost asked him what he meant, but then he got distracted by a bleeding deer and the car screeched into park so he could jump out and wrestle it into the trunk.

I never quite understood. He couldn’t resuscitate a sponge. Here we were on our way to carve a twin sister out of my arm, my copy to the minutiae of each nucleus, and all the while there was a wild forest animal decomposing in the station wagon.

He rarely mentioned them, the Darlenes. When he spoke of my mother he always said “my wife,” as if she had nothing to do with me or the lump in the arm of my cardigan. He spoke in a nebulous tense that wasn’t past but wasn’t present. “My wife’s casseroles could end holy wars,” he told me once, “but her smile could start them. My wife used to blindfold herself at the roller rink and say she was on a quest for gnosis.”

I always had an impression of my mother as this druid. Once she told me that Eve never ate any apples in the garden, that the Church rearranged the history of the Latin word for “apple” to make it seem like that was the “forbidden fruit.” But she revealed, to me, the secret that it was actually a pomegranate. She gestured at the furious matrix of triangles in the living room. Her pupils were dilated, and dervishes whirled inside them.

I don’t think she wanted children, but I think that last egg cream said: I love you because I can’t not love you, you are he and I repeated and so is that lump on your arm. Now I can only think of her in series of still frames, chipped reels unraveling in a lunchbox in the attic. I see her through a beaded curtain of film splotch and tarnish, a tangle of branches in a Turkish skirt with both hands on her stomach: inseminated, transmogrified, diminishing.

A nurse came into focus, looming, with a tray on which pills were arranged in Dixie cups like decadent hors d’oeuvres. She fed me two. They were orange and pink.

“Hey, baby,” my dad said, from a chair by the window, clutching a skimpy bouquet.  When he leaned over to set the flowers next to my head, I realized that the vase that held them was a ceramic totem of Valentine hearts.

The nurse tinkered with mysterious instruments at the foot of the bed. She wore harlequin makeup. I couldn’t feel my arm.

“How are you feeling?” my father asked.

I swatted the flowers off the side table. I didn’t even wait for the nurse to leave. All except the baby’s breath were already long dead.

Before I checked out of the hospital, the doctor handed me a plastic jar filled with pink liquid. My sister floated sordidly inside like some holistic medicinal root, draping her fuzzy black fingers.

We keep her in the refrigerator, in the crisper drawer, with the apples. On the ride home, a firefly hit the windshield on the driver’s side, and my father cried.

About the Author

Shauna Galante

Emerson College

Shauna Galante, who hails from New York, will graduate from Emerson College in 2010 with a degree in writing and gender studies.