Sarah Wilkinson
Like a Hurricane

Real to Reel / Karen Cappotto

How long has it been since I’ve thought about Sprite and vodka in a glass tumbler, Doral cigarettes in a beige leather case? The glass ash tray rimmed in gold, covered with butts crowned by her red lipstick. Images of swirling cyclones on the news bring me to her liquid brown eyes, warm winds pulling then into now.

Grandma Pat sits at the dining table with her elbows propped up against the glass, smoke throwing translucent light over her skin like stage lights. She fingers Christ’s naked body as he hangs in the V of her sweater. Her shameless blue eyeshadow winks when she catches me looking, my eyes darting away to the smoke drifting up to the ceiling. Scared she might disappear behind a cloud of her own smoke, I let my eyes slide back to her long, steady fingers as she pours another vodka. Not sure she’s really there, I reach out and touch her, letting my fingers wrap around her thin, pulsing wrist. Her head falls back as she lets out a laugh from lungs thick with secrets. The sound wriggles beneath my skin, filling my chest like summer rain fills the cupped hands I hold up to the sky. She is the sun and moon, the wind that whips against my window panes.

Memories of her keep flashing against the chipping paint walls, interlaced with images of the growing storm. Chords of panic emanate from the meteorologists who warn that Hurricane Patricia is stronger now than any hurricane has ever been before. From darkening skies, cameras sweep across faceless bodies boarding their windows with hammer and nail, slamming their car doors while tires spin themselves loose trying to get away. Humanitarian agencies on standby wait for a Category 5-sized disaster, life ripped from limb as easily as trees are uprooted from mud.

Lightning strikes like the shutter on my camera at that long-ago wedding reception. I watched Grandma Pat’s body hang suspended in the air through squinted eyes, her hands clutching the sides of the keg as she chugged. Later, when someone put a hand on her shoulder, gently prying her glass away with the other, she shook them off and walked a straight line over to the makeshift bar, pouring another vodka. She was careful to hold the glass up in a stately salute before knocking it back.

Another flash: the glass table, cigarette smoke circling us like a barrier against the world. We feel his wind coming before it fills our lungs, the air trembling. I clench all my muscles up, hoping to make myself invisible as he appears in the doorway. “Patricia,” her husband barks, “where the hell did you hide the car keys?” He shifts through the stacks of bills on the counter, throwing them down in piles at her feet. Hardly moving, she gestures with her cigarette, “They’re right there, Bob.” He doesn’t meet her eyes as he grunts, grabs the keys from their hook, and slams the front door behind him. She shrugs her shoulders, choosing me with her eyes, letting out a rueful laugh. “What the fuck is his problem?” she asks, smiling at me as she flicks the smolder into the glass ashtray. Some men can’t handle strong women, her raised eyebrows whisper to me, a secret the rest of the world can’t have. She inhales so hard on her cigarette her cheeks pucker, and I pucker my cheeks in too.

Outside my window, a bird singing protest at the setting sun pulls me back to the TV screen. I understand before any words are spoken that Hurricane Patricia is shifting. As quickly as she’d formed from warm winds pulling water vapor into tropic lungs, her strength is wavering. Her strength was an illusion, my mother’s warm breath whispers into my neck.

I am ten years old, sitting with Grandma Pat around the glass table. She holds her head in one hand as she fingers Christ’s golden body at her neck with the other. A cigarette lay abandoned and smoldering in the glass ashtray. Her smudged blue eyeshadow swallows her brown eyes and I listen to her say, “He’s killing me, Sarah,” as her husband lets the door slam behind him.

You’re wrong, I think over and over again as my mother tells me that he slept with every woman in the neighborhood while Pat was home with their four sons. “She knew it too. Everyone did.” He’d kept no smokescreen barrier between him and the rest of the world.

But she didn’t leave. Instead, she picked up her tumbler, poured a glass of vodka. She poured another glass when her eldest son died of a drug overdose. She poured another glass when she learned that every one of her remaining three sons cheated on their own wives. She poured another glass when she finally left her marriage, sitting in an empty parking lot in a car packed with all she had, wondering what the hell she’d just done. She eventually met another man, fell in love and married. She poured another glass when he was diagnosed with cancer after only eight years together. When he died, she poured another glass, and then another until the bottle was gone. She took a new one from the pantry, poured another glass.

She exhales from atop perched elbows on the glass table. Emphysema is filling her lungs, she says, taking a drag from her cigarette. For months, I watch her struggle to move between her bed and the glass table until she is too weak to lift the vodka bottle to her glass. Distressed, she asks her ex-husband to move back in. He drives her to the doctor, where she’s told for the seventh time to quit smoking. She unsnaps the clasp on her beige leather case, flicks the Bic lighter. No withdrawal, she says, no surgery or nights spent in a hospital bed. I’ll do what I want, her smile tells me, neck pulled taut with the effort. Death on her own her terms, cherry lit, clouds swirling. She smokes up a storm ready to release Mexico from its moorings.

I watch as she makes landfall, waiting for her to sweep houses off concrete foundations, pull trees from splintered roots, pitch fistfuls of hail and gusts of wind against shattering windows. I am ten years old, willing her to hold her head high, to meet my gaze and say, “I’m better than this,” slamming her cigarette down into the ashtray and grabbing her coat from its hook, letting the door slam forever shut behind her. I am twenty years old watching as instead, the air seeps out of her lungs. No raging winds or storm clouds marching proudly until the end; no rebellion contained in the smoldering red tip. For years Grandma Pat suffocated on the words I choose myself, practiced a thousand times in the mirror, always catching in her throat when she tried to speak them. One cigarette too many and now, she has no voice. Lying immobile beside a man who never looks her in the eye, she holds the smoke inside her chest, pulling until there is no lung left. I reach for her as the storm clouds release from their center, dissipating into nothing.

I find her in the cupped hands I hold up to the sky, waiting for rain from a hurricane resigned to Vodka bottles swirling in the wind, a trail of cigarette butts crowned red with her lipstick.

Sarah Wilkinson has been published in several magazines including Atticus Review, Amarillo Bay, Crack the Spine, and The Bangalore Review. She’s a Nonfiction Editor for Halfway Down the Stairs and is currently trying to eat butter in as many European countries as possible.

Karen Cappotto lives in Provincetown, MA, where she maintains her painting and design studios. Her work has appeared in House Beautiful, Elle Decor, This Old House, The Washington Post, and Provincetown Arts. Karen studied at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Boston College, and Manchester College at Oxford University.