Storytime: Karen

Please enjoy this post where I tell you a story about an event from my life. Nothing more, nothing less. Today’s story: Karen.

Unlike my mother, whose friends had turned solid, still, but scarce throughout her life, my dad had a menagerie of strangers who waltzed in and out of his life. They were the tropical storm and lightning relationships that mirrored his hurricane wives. Nearly all of them women but from various walks of life. What they saw in him is beyond me, even as an adult.

But there I am at age 10, standing on a wooden dance floor as an excitable figure exits from behind the bar. High pitch undulations reaching me just before a body collides with mine. Pulling me in for a hug I do not want. She is all sharp angles. Thin arms, long legs, shoulders that lop off in squared measures with a tight, gaunt face, body wrapped in loud clothing. She is trapped in time, a monument to the 80s [now a decade past]: pink tube top, silver metallic skirt, chunky black belt. Blond hair, teased up with AquaNet, outfit capped off with pink kitten heels and pink bangle bracelets – both of which clang and click along with every shaky movement she makes.

She loves me. She fawns and sighs and paws at my hair. I don’t know her though and something about her sets me on edge. Something in the strange sway of her body, or the slipperiness in her eyes, or the way she doesn’t wait until I’ve said anything to find me worthy and good and loveable.

She runs the bar at this club and she fetches my dad a drink and tries to offer me something too but I simply stand there, impassive and shy. After the warm up karaoke starts, Karen insists that I go on stage. I refuse several times until she tells me that when I grow up I’ll just need liquid courage to do dumb things like this. I try not to judge her too much but at this point she’s on her third glass of something and it makes her face flush and pale in equal measures. Her breath has a sweet tang when she laughs too hard but she gets up on the stage and sings her best Nancy Sinatra “These Boots Were Made for Walkin’“. The words aren’t always in cadence, the syllables slipping around fruitlessly, but her bright pink heels click in perfect staccato. Tapping out a message. SOS, they seem to say, I’m going down. I think I see her for a minute in between the lights and sounds, the face of a woman that someone hurt. The face of someone who had something stolen.

Despite her insistence, I don’t do any karaoke that night. I stubbornly refuse because I don’t want to be revealed under those same lights. I don’t want to be seen and known by strangers. Instead I sit in the DJ booth reading a book while the dance floor below fills and I wait for my dad to finish his set. I peek down sometimes, watching the bodies of dancers grow together and apart in equal measures. Watching drunk people whose limbs flail without grace, whose bodies have given up on caring. I watch people who melt, doubled lips and hips and hands that press and blend together to form a new, singular body. And in the middle is Karen, lost and pink. Heels tapping out a message I don’t understand. A bubble drawn around her that no one can penetrate. Thin arms raised but hesitant, as if she is riding a roller coaster she doesn’t know how to stop.

The next time we see Karen is in her home. She lives in a duplex, on the left side of a building with two floors, a concrete porch that connects to the street, and what might be mistaken for a backyard. The small field behind the house is shared by both apartments and it is filled with nothing but overgrowth and weeds that back up to a chain link fence. I still think it’s fancy.

She has three children, two boys a few years older than me and one girl two years younger than me. We all get along pretty well but they aren’t very interested in me particularly. For a while we play video games and dress up but eventually I find myself back in the kitchen with the adults, sitting underneath a table. Maybe hiding. The room is full of Karen’s family and friends and they simply sit around drinking and smoking. The conversation is strangely sparse, especially for my father, but eventually they decide to make chocolates together which leads to hours of melting and pouring and setting chocolates where at least noise and concentration fill the awkward space where words should be.

The quiet gives me time to think. I watch Karen as she deftly fills a chocolate mold, body shaking slightly but she compensates for it, as if the tremor has always existed. As if it had always lived in her wrists or her arms. She decorates the small chocolates with icing, drawing hearts and other shapes on top of chocolate medallions while pursing her lips, quiet and calm. Then all at once a billowing sound, laughter thick with smoke and sadness as she surveys her delicate work. The white tang top she wears gives no illusion of grace, a bright blue bra poking out the top and side, her arms stick thin and quivering, dotted with grey and green marks. I worry what the bruises mean but I turn all my attention to the chocolates she produces. Despite the shake, all her chocolate comes out perfect, near professional. Each one carefully made, filled, and then decorated with small artistic flourish. Loving placed on the table next to mine which are full of holes and have strange off-kilter lines. My chocolates have small candies on them, to patch over my mistakes, and the shake in my hand I can’t control either.

In the end, they all taste the same.

The last time we see Karen is two years later. We go over to her house one hot summer Saturday because she bought a trampoline. The trampoline fills the entire enclosed space of the backyard. Black canvas floating ominously over yellowing water-parched grass. Wedged up against the sliding door as if the trampoline is an umbrella designed to keep the ground from experiencing rain (well, if it ever rained).

The summer sun is so hot that day that we are all bouncing on the trampoline in bathing suits to get as close to naked as possible. My dad sits at the edge of the back door and sprays us with water from a hose as well. We all squeal in surprise and contrasting temperature. We are always in motion when we’re on the trampoline, slippery and wet and wild. Cool breeze and hot sun. Up and down.

I take my turn on the trampoline especially seriously. I drive my legs down towards it, attempting to ricochet the others right off the surface at dramatic angles but all three of Karen’s children are larger than me so I spend most of my time being bounced – hanging in air for moments that echo forever – before crashing to Earth with ineffectual momentum that sublimates into laughter.

I grow weary after a good hour of bouncing and sun crashing down on me and I head inside to change back into dry clothes. I only make it halfway to the bathroom before I hear Karen humming in the kitchen. I sneak around the corner to watch her, assuming she is making lunch or bringing us snacks.

She is dancing in place in the middle of the kitchen. Her feet tapping against the soft linoleum as her hips sway against the melody. She opens her arms for a spin, languid and slow. Their dangling strangeness draws my eyes. Red marks in the crux of the elbows, grey and green bruises up the bicep.

Something was taken from Karen, but she takes from herself too.

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