I am 45 years old and I have started writing on my hand the way the middle schoolers do even though the teachers have outlawed it a distraction and an ugly habit. My 13-year old daughter comes home with hearts in the crook of her left hand: “I love you” exclamation point, exclamation point, exclamation point. Turning my head sideways to read her words, I ask, “Who wrote that, sweetie?”
A love letter. “To yourself?”
Just a nod.
It began last week at the steering wheel. There is always a terrible urgency with the arrival of an image or the words. One second you are listening to NPR, checking the clock, merging onto the freeway, asking about homework, and the next second, BAM, you are blindsided. As luck would have it, these images, words, or miraculous clues to something I am puzzling through in my writing, come after 2 o’clock in the afternoon when I am driving my children to soccer, gymnastics, piano.
“Quick,” I said to my 15 year old. “Write this.”
I held out my left hand across the steering wheel and in enormous capital letters, she took my dictation.
LEDA AND THE SWAN
I could not ask her to write the other word. But I hoped it would be there when I looked at my hand and remembered why Salvador Dali’s “Atomic Leda,” a painting I have invoked in my novel, brings me back to the madness and violence of Yeats’ poem. Only just now in writing do I remember the word, which I could not ask my teenage daughter to ink on my skin: RAPE.
The rest of the day and through the evening, through my book club’s discussion of Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan, my daughter’s bold letters were always in sight. I drew my sleeve down and hoped no one would ask what they were for because I didn’t dare talk about what they might mean. It is why my few attempts at calling my answering machine from the road to dictate an idea never ever work. The surprising image or coupling of words, however startling, however bright, no matter how my heart jumped, is sentenced when voiced. Shot dead on arrival.
I was grateful that my daughter retraced the letters because they did not wash off my hand and the next morning when I sat down to write, I felt, instead of knew, where to start. “Leda and the Swan,” Dali’s strange revision of this myth and the violence wrought by my novel’s character on her own body.
The next day, I set my yoga mat right behind the woman with all the tattoos, so I could read the gothic cursive below the Virgin Mary on her left shoulder. In the course of inversions and warrior poses, I have time to read all her tattoos. “Live fiercely,” the Virgin Mary says with a bland smile. I look down at my own hand, at what’s left of the scrawl, my daughter’s boldness, which follows the blue track of veins down these, my mother’s hands.
My character Luisa has tattoos. Blue raindrops, she tries to convince her husband, but we understand they are really tears. She has had these tattoos for three years, ever since I started this novel. I knew nothing about her or her husband or what they had suffered, but it was one of the first scenes I wrote. And now, years later, it is only in writing on my hand and walking around with these reminders, that I feel her closer and understand what she didn’t dare forget, her reminder to herself, notice to those close to her that she will never forgive herself, that she will keep doing penance until she dies.
This morning, in the dentist’s chair, I raise a hand, the hygienist’s sign for “need suction,” and when my mouth is emptied, I ask if she has a pen. I don’t want to forget something, I say.
“Do you want a piece of paper?”
This is becoming habit. “No, thanks. I will forget where I stuck the paper. My hand is better.”
And so I write with her too-thin pen, “how to be,” “after” (with a swoop drawn to), “clung to him.” It is the scene I need to write. How this couple goes on, day after day, how they return to loving, to sleeping in the same bed. How forgiveness may be possible. I have yet to write this scene this morning and I am running out of time, the letters now completely faded, only tick marks over the freckles and sun spots, a broken morse code which I will not be able to translate unless I get to it quickly. Pen it now. Before it’s gone.
Claudia Cottle Hinz lives in Bend, Oregon, with her husband and three children. Her first novel, A HOUSE OF BONES, is out on submission.