Sandra Wheeler

Seen as if from underwater

Remember first the pool
at the end of class. The thick, acidic
smell of chlorine; the slap
of wet feet hurrying; the girls'
high voices that reverberate
from concrete and tile,
echo, fade. The air fills
with radiant strands of water
that splice and fuse and fray
along walls, along the ceiling. Then
the open shower stalls; all dark
gray concrete; warm air heavy
with steam; the hum
of dryer nozzles; impatient voices calling
for a comb, a turn at the dryers.
Finally, the bleachers in the balcony overlooking
the pool: girls in white blouses and full skirts
file in, some clutching notebooks
to their chests, some adjusting
nylons, smoothing hair, to wait
for the bell to ring. A refrain, sung
in close harmony: Here she is, Miss
. As they sing, the two
pool monitors step behind
one tall, stoop-shouldered girl, take her
by the elbows and usher her out
in front of the bleachers. Here
she is, Miss A-MER-i-ca
. They leave
her standing there. She blinks, pauses, climbs
into the bleachers. She joins
the laughter as if dazed, slower
than her audience
to get the joke. From all
sides, lacings of water flow over
the young, laughing faces.



In that early stage of drawing, soon after scribbling, when it was not the illusion but the diagram of reality that mattered, I went through a brief and intensely satisfying time in which I drew figures, always women, and then dressed them by drawing the layers: first a bra and underpants, then a slip, all with scalloped lines for lace, last a dress with buttons. I was very proud of these drawings, but this stage did not last. I was already learning the next lesson: only the outside is supposed to show.


You've seen them in an aquarium, tiny fish with only a suggestion of scales, the silvery sheen that comes and goes with the changing light. Glass fish. Backbone only slightly opaque, alimentary canal, dark eyes on stems. A throbbing dot for a heart. Hardly more substantial than bubbles, than distortions in a glass, surely they must be more fragile than other fish, more susceptible to an accidental touch, more easily lost and stranded. Yet in the eye of a predator, they disappear, mere background, able to survive as next to nothing.


In the eighth grade, Miss Bond was my art teacher. Everyone, everyone, had said she was crazy, but that was just the way they talked. She had short gray hair and shining spectacles and seemed to me simply old and alien. Then one day Anthony Tullio put crayons on the radiator nearest his seat, filling the room with a stink of blue, greens, pinks. Miss Bond said whoever was doing that had to stop, but she didn't go to stand between our desks and the radiators, and so the smell in our throats got heavier and more clotted. We were not too young, she told us, to learn that beauty makes life worth living; whatever else one might lose, art and beauty remain. She herself had lost so much, she said. then she stood in front of the room and told us all, the whole class, what everyone had told me and I had not believed.
***** She told us she was the Princess Anastasia.
***** She was the heir to the imperial Russian throne.
***** She had survived when everyone else in her family had been slaughtered.
***** She had come from Europe to New York on a raft.
***** A raft ! I turned away; it was too invasive to look at her. The shock was not that she could believe this story in spite of the other Anastasias. The enormity was that she would tell us all this freely.

Soon, steaming colors were running down every radiator like ruined icing on so many cakes. The room was very quiet. Occasionally, Miss Bond's voice could be heard talking about art amidst the snakes that hissed in the radiators. She stood all morning in the changing light, so clear and silver, talking, with too many layers showing through, and the mysterious dark dot of her heart, that opaque speck in the glass, throbbing.

A kitchen memorial

I'm standing at the kitchen counter holding
a white onion and a paring knife
in my hands, but I've been thinking
about my mother as she was at the end, in intensive
care with lung cancer. Without looking, I rub my thumb
over the onion, listening to the soft dry sound like
breathing, rssshhh; but when she was hooked
to a respirator, the sound was so much
more emphatic. The onion in my hand is cool
and full at the bottom, then shrinks
into itself
at the top where the onion has become smaller
than its own
skin. Except where her hand was bloated, stretched
by the I.V., my mother, too, had collapsed
inside her skin, which was dry and which she scratched, restlessly
rolling from side to side. That, they finally
decided, was a side effect of the morphine. They changed
her medication, and she was quiet and went further
away, deeper inside her body.

The discolored white roots, stubby, broken off,
no longer anchor and sustain
the onion. In the intensive care station, I
could be with her for only
five minutes at the beginning of each hour. Once,
when my time was up for the hour, my mother
told me that I wouldn't be able to leave
the hospital because all
of us in there were dead; no one
could leave. She had been afraid
of hospitals, and the day I had
to have her admitted, she had been trying
to change the clock
for the automatic timer on the stove and was pushing
the wrong
buttons so that she was leaning
on the electric burners
that she had turned on. She told me she had
to turn off all
the clocks in the house because time
itself had stopped. Everything,
she said, had stopped.

As I hold the onion ready for the knife, I
become distracted by a pale, spring
green flush where the base is full, firm,
and where one side blushes
a softly mottled pink. From here, a split
in the tight outer layer of the onion runs
up to the looser, dryer layers at the top. Here,
the fissure reveals a deeper
layer, much paler, where the green
reaches higher before turning to pink. I stare
at these colors as if
they mean something.

I know that if I leave it alone, the core
of the onion will grow greener and lift
out of itself, out of this onion already
beginning to decay around it, and it will stink
with living. The top
of the onion tears away
with a soft crinkly sound as I turn it.
When I press the top, it sounds
like distant
footsteps in dry grass.

Rescue Attempts

You still live in their house. She is talking to you. You slide a locket back and forth along its thin chain. There are doorways, lamps, the tall wooden cupboards in which you want to hide, crouched on a dark top shelf. Outside, grass sways underwater, fingering the moonlight in a river of inches. The levee is two houses down. The news comes on. The weather report is in English. Lightning rods on the roof trick sudden silverwhite roots down from the sky to glow in the cellar. She says, If you think you know so much. You know the dark glitters and sticks to your fingers. And don't come up until you're finished, she says. You come up for the third time. Your mother remembers the Johnstown flood. When the water level went down, she went back to the ice cream parlor where she worked. Two huge steel ice cream freezers sat tumbled into a corner. Dice: they looked like enormous dice. What would you know? he asks. There is no answer. After supper, you go upstairs to bed. Droplets of rain the color of moonlight slip down the windows like jellyfish. Your backyard could be their aquarium, seahorses sliding among the irises. As you fall asleep, you can hear the moon ticking in your mother.

Downstairs, your father has lost his sea legs. I'm tired fooling around here, he says. He starts toward the door and stumbles into the table where the goldfish bowl sits. The bowl is glass, glass that looks solid, all the while flowing, slowly, slowly, inside its own brittle boundaries. Dreamily flowing within itself as it falls, the bowl shatters, scatters the fish like debris. The popeyed fish and the fantailed one work their mouths and gills in the scalding air. Your mother cups her hands around their pulsing bodies and hurries to the kitchen. She comes back to look for the spotted one, waving weakly from the dust. At last she sees the bright orange and white flash once, again, like code. She scoops it up. It is bloodied. The blood is hers. Then three fish circle in three jelly glasses on the kitchen counter. Fantail swims inside her veils. Veils of blood swirl down the sink. While your father watches, the currents have swept him far out to sea, too far to call again for help and far from the sign of any shore. In the morning, they will tell . . . oh, they'll tell you something. They always do.