Hats are even simpler than shawls—cast on, rib for two inches, knit for-what-seems-like-ever, decrease consistently and methodically, cover your head. I have made more hats than I can remember. About ten for my best friend who wears some sort of hat all the time, a few each for my children, a handful for family babies, and towering stacks for infants I will never know. I knit them when I want someone to know I love them just because their existence has come to my attention, and I think it’s worth celebrating. You don’t have to do anything special to merit a hat, and I knit them with joy in my heart and laughter on my lips. I think it must be the happy and not the wool that makes them so warm.
That towering stack of baby hats was made in partial payment to the midwife who delivered my last two children. Every time I gave her a new stack, she looked at each one and cooed over it. I had more fun watching her enjoy getting the hats than I had making them. “Look how tiny!” she said. And, “Oh, that color is so pretty!” And, “I know who I will give this one to, her baby is so little and it’s so soft.”
It doesn’t take long at all to make a newborn hat, about four hours if it’s crocheted and six if it’s knitted. Just knowing that it’s going to be on the head of a brand new soul is payment enough. Thinking about those hats and the little heads they went on reminds me of the way my own babies smelled. Not that fake baby powder smell, but the other one, the clean and earthy smell of new life. It lasts such a short time, three or four days at most, and then it is gone; outgrown faster than the first clothes and harder to remember because you can’t touch it.
The hats for my best friend have stories, too. Most of them were knit as we talked on the phone, while he drove across Louisiana and Texas and Virginia and New Jersey and once even to New York. For a while, it seemed like he got a new one every time he came home. He’d take off the old one and put on the new one, and we would sit for hours smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee, talking about war and peace, love and hate, time and distance, trauma and hurt. Sometimes entire paragraphs were spoken silently between each painful sentence. We tried to help each other become whole again, one pair of frosty blue eyes looking into another, verifying that we were each worth the next breath of air we took.
We are eating dinner one night, building fajitas from the plates of food the waiter brought to the table. “Tell me about Panama,” I say. I expect to hear about beautiful women, and tropical fruit.
He begins to speak as we unroll the tortillas. “I sat there, with what was left of him on my lap. I couldn’t let him see ….that. I blocked his view. I told him he was going to be fine. I couldn’t let him see that his legs were gone. Three days before, we had been state-side, sitting in the day room, talking smack. He was laughing. I drew his picture. He bled out lying in my lap,” he says. It takes about five minutes for him to say this to me. He looks down at his busy hands while I look at him. Occasionally, he looks up to see if I am still listening, and I nod. When he starts eating, I make my fajita, and we eat that set in silence.
He doesn’t draw anymore.
“What happened with your husband?” he asks. We are sitting in the camper. It is raining. I have just asked about his ex-wife and he tells me about his children instead, and then changes the subject. “You were married to him for 16 years. That’s a long time.”
“Oh,” I say. Then I stop. My eyes leave his face, and dart around the paneled walls. He sits between me and the door. Finally, I drop my gaze to the cracked linoleum. He waits. “Things had been…not right…between us for a while. Several months, you know. And then one day, I came home and he had a picture of me on his computer. As his background. One I had allowed him to take privately almost year before. I, I was wearing. I had on shoes and a smile. He let my children see that. Jasmine says they were all lined up looking at it, all seven of them. He showed it to my children. So I told him again to get out. Get out, get out, GET OUT. I felt like he raped me there in front of my kids.” It takes one and a half cigarettes to tell him this.
“I felt so ashamed,” I say. I glance at his face to see if he hates me. He doesn’t, but what I see in his eyes makes me cry all the same. I look away and we smoke again.
He is lying across the bed, surfing the internet while I clean my room. I need to get rid of some stuff and organize it, because I am planning to paint it pink soon. It will be a princess room for my single-girl self. We are talking about nothing important. I throw a cracked ceramic canister into the nearly empty trash can, and he jumps. “What’s all that about?” I ask.
“Nothing,” he says. I continue to clean for a bit, and then I realize that while his face is still turned in my direction, he is no longer in that room with me. His hands are poised over the keyboard, but they are still. His one-word answer was not the truth.
I call his name. My voice pulls him back from wherever he’s gone. “What happened?”
“She used to throw things. When she got mad. I’d come home off the truck, and she’d be in bed with some guy. She’d get mad then. She got mad, and threw things, and hit me. And I let her. Let’s go smoke,” he says. So we do. When we get outside, I ask him why he let that happen. He tells me, “I thought it was my fault. If I were a better man, she wouldn’t cheat, and if she didn’t cheat, I wouldn’t catch her, and if I didn’t catch her, then she wouldn’t get mad and hit me.” He says all of this in one breath, between puffs on his Pall Mall. I realize I am looking at him the same way he looked at me when I told him about my husband. We finish our cigarettes in silence. When we go back in, I am careful not to make any noise as I continue to clean the room.
“How’s your mom?” he asks. I can hear the steady beep of the compressor as the air brakes fill on his truck.
“She’s fine,” I answer.
“What’s wrong?” he says. I hate that he can tell at hello if something is not right with me, even on a cell phone, even when he’s in the middle of Nowhere, Ohio where there is barely any signal.
“I was over there today. I spoke to Bill again, and he acted like I wasn’t even there,” I say. Bill is my step-father. It has been six weeks since he looked in my direction, and three months since we’ve had an actual conversation. “He’s still doing that thing he’s doing. Or not doing. Whatever.”
“Have you asked him about that?” he asks. It’s a reasonable question.
“No. Mama still won’t let me,” I say.
“Do you know what his problem is?” he says. It’s another reasonable question to which I have no rational answer.
“I guess. He hasn’t really talked to me since Pat and I split. It’s like he blames me. He told Mama he thinks I’m sleeping around.” I laugh, bitterly. “How can I sleep around when I can’t…?” I trail off here. He already knows what it is that I can’t do. “I feel like he thinks this whole thing is my fault, that he blames me for it somehow. I don’t know what to do.”
“Nothing,” he says. “There is nothing you can do with that.”
He startles himself awake. He has been asleep on the loveseat while I have been doing homework. I am across the room before he finishes sitting up. People don’t make that sort of noise when things are fine. “Are you okay?” I say. It’s a crazy question. I can see he isn’t, but conversations have to start somewhere. I sit down beside him and put my hand on his leg, just above the knee, on the hem of his blue shorts. I keep my eyes on that hand.
“Did I say anything?” he asks. His voice is rigid. So are his arms. His breath is so fast and hard that it could almost be called panting.
“No,” I answer.
“Nothing? I didn’t say anything?” he asks again.
“No. You didn’t say anything,” I say again. We sit for a couple of minutes. I know he doesn’t like to be touched, so I start to get up. He grabs my hand, and pulls me back, placing our linked hands on my own knee. We sit a few more minutes. His breathing slows. He takes his own pulse. It’s a gesture I have gotten used to over the past three years.
“Let’s have a cigamarette,” he says. That’s a word he uses when things are too heavy, when he wants to get away from them. We go outside, and light up.
“Are we going to talk about that?” I ask. When he doesn’t answer, I know we aren’t.
“How bad a person must I be if two husbands and two fathers can’t love me?” I ask. It is the cry of a wounded child, and he can’t answer.
“No one should have to look through their sights at a kid wrapped in explosives and have to make a decision about whether they die alone or whether they take you and your buddies with them,” he says. This, too, is the cry of a wounded child, and I have no answer.
“Did you know that when you start to go crazy, you can feel it? Like, physically, I mean? It feels like the top of your brain is coming off!” one of us says.
“Yeah, I know,” answers the other.
We don’t converse in the normal way when we talk about these things. One of us talks, or tries to, and the other listens, mutely. Really, what do you say when someone shows you their naked soul? You say nothing because only by your silence can you show your respect for the pain. Always, when one of us finishes, the cigarettes are smoked down to the colored filter and the butts are firmly stubbed out before normal conversation resumes.
It must have worked, all that wool and all those words. The man who swore he would never love again is in Missouri now with a new girlfriend and those ten hats, plus two scarves. It gets cold there in Missouri. And it is cold here without him, but only if I stop to think about it. I’m glad for him. We don’t talk as much anymore, he and I. When we do, usually on Monday mornings, the conversation is light, and focused on what’s currently happening in our lives. Some ghosts are best left alone, once you get them to sleep.
This is the second of three parts. Check out these lab coats while you wait for me to get back with the links.