FROM AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF CHILDHOOD
She became aware of her own childhood one night in the middle of a very steep stairway. Caught halfway down, or up, she stares at the window in front of her and her childhood stares back, a smudge, perhaps already a stain, the edges of which she will spend a lifetime trying to discern. Later she might think there is something in coming to terms with oneself this way, children staring down through a banister at the light, puzzling the noise, finality versus eternity echoing in their heads. Trauma burns forever in the child’s brain. But what is the trauma? Eternity? Finality? What comes first, the awareness of childhood or the awareness of death?
Unexpected, death is always trauma.
Yet there it lies, in the straggle of her childhood, death: completely insensible and ill-timed, a boa constrictor sprawled across the lap of the house, and now her father standing in the fast-food glow, tummy just beginning to protrude over his green work pants, salt-and-pepper strands falling like feathers over his brow. He is light on his feet, even with a paunch, and soft in the hands, despite the hard look of permanent grease stains. Five siblings huddle above on the landing, witnessing the monsoon of death in the A&W-coloured kitchen. She would like to tell you how he wept, describe his fingernails, curled like small insect wings, how he folded in on himself for a moment in the hallway below, how his physical shape created a space she is unable to fill … but not now. Now she must look to objects. Now she must concentrate on the rooms in the house; the house that contains childhood; the kitchen that prepares the food of childhood; the food that is orange and watery, brown and runny, pale green, thick ketchup red. The room with cupboards that had been wood, that had once, her father argued just a few hours earlier, been beautiful.
But wood, however beautiful, isn’t modern, her mother says, wood is depressing, so last-century, so impossible to clean, she would sooner pull the wooden cupboards down and leave them in the dust heap; she would sooner go without than have something drab, cracked, porous brown, wood, she said, ugh. She wants everything modern. Wipeable. Vinyl or plastic. So she starts with the cupboards. The orange insults his sensibility somehow; though even hip-high she knows that the idea of her father having a sensibility is ridiculous, even hip-high she suspects that he (and perhaps all fathers, maybe even all adults) is a puppet, that there is a line inside him below which nothing but impulse directs his movements. Her mother insinuated as much. Later she apologized for this, later she worried she had put her daughter off men. I love him, she said, that is why I can despise him.
She would like you to notice already how difficult it is to get at the story, how even without death, the thinking of one parent and another, the clash of wills, creates the tone of childhood. The back and forth of individual desire constructs the walls and doorways, the gates and stairways of childhood; the architecture of emotion, upright, solid as two-by-fours, stacked, ready for the swing of muscled arms and hammer blows. She would like you to notice how headlines and cutlines are also sashes and doorsills, how words float from print to tongue and back, or are whacked out of backyards with the force of aluminum bats, or caught in young, ungloved hands, small bones splintering unnoticed.
Stopped suddenly, childhood snags on years and is left dangling.
History is a great tree strung with the bright lights of childhood: now earthy, now grand, now Victorian, now plump, now ornate.
In this sapling childhood, things are complex. Outsides are patterned, but not yet branded. Corporations have not taken the idea of capital to its extreme, crafting each moment into product, amalgamating existing with consuming, thinking with advertising. In fact, there are still businessmen, sleek in felt hats and shiny shoes, who go home to mothballed closets and dreams of weekend golf, or boating, though inevitably end up at backyard barbecues, or legion halls playing shuffleboard and drinking squat bottles of Molson’s.
In this childhood, the bright-coloured patterns clash. Furniture thickens and smooths, then becomes chiselled, limbs and hair lengthen and fray, seams soften, carpet grows to grass-like lengths, acid green, and is raked daily. Clothing becomes angular. Colours and patterns sharpen, become paisley, tart. People stand in line at the Dairy Queen. They are still under the illusion that they have choice. And perhaps some of them do.
There are no Nikes. No just doing anything. Her brother has black-and-white canvas runners in which he feels winged. There is no shock-absorbent sole, no microfleece lining. The eyeholes are metal, the laces so long they are double-knotted, the tips frayed. He runs around in the gym on days when the wind chill is too extreme, around the kitchen table before dinner, around his room at night, so fast no one sees him coming or going. He plans on running all the way to California where the curbs are flat, hydro poles buried underground and northern water piped down. The runners are not a specific brand; in fact, where the logo might be, a white plastic circle lies, an imaginative space. Empty, she knows, because she spends the morning of his death under his bed where they stare back at her like small creatures also awaiting his return.
(You understand that time is a skipping rope here, now twisted, now flattened, now enjoying double dutch? You understand that childhood is a flick of the wrist? Here is a gap. You can stand in it. Staring up. A beetle in a plastic cup. Go around and around. Something will come to you.)
She is going to tell you a story. He is going to tell you a story.
The story of childhood, of course, begins, with childhood. This childhood. The one she is continuously experiencing, the one she never really left. It is not a famous childhood, not notorious or spectacular, you will not discover intellectual conversations occurring over macaroni and cheese, but it is nonetheless a story. Childhood is a story, always reconstructing as we remember. Tethered to the core of it, we are caught there; days spiral out and back in all weather. This is where the story begins, then. Here is a point of entry. Here, remember the shifting feet, the deafening newness of things, the absolute flounder of it. The sound of new. Remember how it rolled in your ears? Starting in the belly and rising in waves?
I could tell you a story, the twelve-year-old prostitute says. I could tell you a story, the young man selling pot on the corner says. Let me tell you a story, her coiffed students say in their neat rows. It begins like this …
Sina Queyras grew up on the road in western Canada and has since lived in Vancouver, Toronto, New York, Philadelphia and Montreal. Her work can be found online at the Poetry Foundation and internationally in print and online journals. Her last collection of poetry, Expressway, was nominated for a Governor General’s Award and won Gold at the National Magazine Awards. Her previous collection, Lemon Hound, won a Lambda Award. She has taught creative writing at Rutgers, Haverford and currently teaches at Concordia University in Montreal. She created and maintains the literary blog Lemon Hound.