OBJECT: Formica Dinette
BODY OF WATER: East River
A note from the author: while this story veers considerably from its intended milieu—i.e., the waterways of New York, and what lies beneath them (that is to say, they don’t appear apart from one opaque mention), I like to think that the spirit of the project is faithfully represented, insofar as New York is made up of the people who escape to it, and the buried things they bring with them, and the things they bury in the places they’ve left behind.—K.A.R.
I was six years old when I first saw the hole in the lake, out near the dam—that was the year we left the campsite at Putah Creek to be closer to Spanish Flat; that was the year I saw my mother for the last time. Auntie and Uncle parked the camper, disallowing us kids to sit inside it during daylight, and backed the orange speedboat into Lake Berryessa before driving out to the dam in the brown pickup. The hole went unexplained. It interrupted the placid surface, water entering its maw, as though the earth had given way with geometric precision—a bending of physics; a miracle shoved where no one would see.
The hole terrified me. It was too extraordinary. I opened my mouth to ask questions but was quieted by their silence. Then I forgot. We went out on the boat that afternoon, and won candy for every second we stayed up while waterskiing. They shouted out the count—1! 2! 3!I swallowed so much lake water I couldn’t stand. You’re gonna live with us now, Auntie said. She handed me another sour candy, the kind that stung. You don’t live with your mom no more. I opened up to ask questions but the silence won out again. I paused and the pause lasted years.
Auntie was a better cook than my mother. The mother she and my mother shared had loved Auntie most, or only; had sat her in the kitchen as she cooked, blithely explaining the movements of her hands. Only my mother had chores; Auntie didn’t know what the word meant until she was a teenager. Fold the laundry, wash the silver. Set the plates. They had a beaten Formica table, deeply scratched by a pair of wrought-iron candleholders that were never used. Auntie told me about the time she and my mother swung on the door of the refrigerator for hours, having been left home alone. They swung until the door handle fell off. Auntie was sent to her room. My mother was hit across the softest part of her head—that place just east of the eye—with an open hand until a dim small light appeared on the periphery of her vision, and stayed. She told me this when I was small; it’s the last thing I can hear her voice saying. She followed that phantom light like a beacon, trailing it right out of the world.
One camping trip, the drought was especially bad—the falling waterline left ever more dire rings on the rocky rim of the lake—and the lost city emerged. A compromised bridge, with arches like the Roman aqueducts; the dead fingers of a tree left to drown; the damp spire of a church. The dam had killed the city, once known as Monticello, a hundred years ago—the lake was manmade. What looked natural could be false. Some team of builders could mimic God. Someone in a pickup truck drove over the ancient bridge, and we watched, waiting.
Auntie wanted to stand in Times Square on New Years Eve. It was her dream; she talked about it every year, her cigarette exhaling its blind smoke above the stained lampshade, the mirrorball slipping down into place. When I moved to New York twenty years later, she refused to visit. Instead she sent food in boxes. Not even overnight, just in a box, regular post, shipped 3,000 miles—mashed potatoes in plastic wrap, leaking like a burst organ, little paper towels full of ham-stuffed won tons. The boxes arrived filmed with grease. The smell was absurd. My Aunt stopped eating entirely but continued to feed everyone. She bought a $10,000 watch and an elaborate fur and wore neither; she got a job she didn’t need, and lost it.
When I married, my husband and I received a Formica table that had belonged to his grandparents. We placed it in the dining room that wasn’t one, was in fact just the passage between the living room and kitchen. The surface was bluish gray like an old woman’s hair rinse and we set it every night with paper plates and cans of Coke. It stayed in California when we moved away—to the land of the dropping balls, the land of Times Square, the land where water halts one’s footpaths in every direction. The table was left beneath some boxes in my mother’s house, forgotten.
Her house had never been sold, once she was sent away—to the land of quiet halls, the land of the endearingly named restraint harness, the Posey. Auntie took me along when she looked in on the place, on rare afternoons. Uncle would work on the boat at home. He couldn’t bear it, I understand now—watching Auntie sit me in my old room as she stood in the doorway, until my time was up. I was allowed to stroke my old dolls, but had to leave them there. The house remained, I guess, because no one had the stomach for paperwork. I would talk to the house. It was close enough. House, I would start. My mother was all the way gone by then, fully asleep inside her body, dead and alive both.
I forget the name of the hospital now, where my mother lives. It’s not one you can visit. Better to think of it as a breathing graveyard. Auntie sends me cards on Christmas that are sprayed with perfume, but smell instead of cigarettes. Uncle works on the boat but it looks the same each time I visit. We went back to the hole once when I was ten, the kids all nearly grown and no one willing to ski but me. I stood for four seconds and refused the candy. Bravery was its own reward. In those four seconds I looked into murky nothing, and considered the absence of that water. In the water’s absence I would be flying over the eroded town, sinking toward it when my feet found me again and I slowed, and could no longer stay up. In the water’s absence I would be above the world, and no longer of it.
Katie Arnold-Ratliff received her MFA from Sarah Lawrence College, and is the author of the novel Bright Before Us, published by Tin House Books. Now on the editorial staff of O, the Oprah Magazine, she lives in New York.