Charisma is "for the chorus of us." I wrote Charisma over a period of nine years, moving through and enervated by the political prescriptions of middle-class feminist academia; craning my gaze on women through the hourglass of my wounded relationship with "mother, sister, grandmother"; diving through several portals of baby-shit and bliss to wear the secret subcultural drape of motherhood; its repeated re-shapings of Normal greeting my sense of "what happens" as a waking frequency of turgid extremes. I realized that straight novels had always bored me, why I masturbated to make them more interesting. I would need fiction to become a foodlike procession, an irrefutable love-surrogate, imbibed to stimulate the senses. (Going down on me.) I liked a multi-channel environment, not for its staccato disavowal of the constant but because I had been raised with an appetite to introject several stories simultaneously, each contracting and expanding according to its own pulse.
Mothering a boy and then girl-boy twins often involves being unable to regulate how much experience I confront; a surfeit of sentience. An overflow of interaction, so that the negotiated space of consensual relationship capsizes. As when one is in love with more than one lover, or dreaming, or in hate, an oxymoronic prostrate agent (who is) subject to the re-calibration of self-limits and society's clichés about who/what is "hot." I wanted to write the storiedness of bisexual subjectivity (even tho maybe rejected by queer command-central) as a kaleidoscopic inner identity script of positive contradictions and overflow, and to acclaim cunt-agency for mother subjects. A story that managed to open gender itself like a cocktail umbrella, with the notion of the gendered character as a laquered overarch of spokes. As persona spoken and collapsed again, efficient and portable to other stories, ducking in and out of brief theory showers.
When you winked your way through the glass we knew it was a cover. We wondered about ourselves then, about the social organization of gender categories, about barriers to the heteroerotic--we mean hetero as in plural, different and manifold--desires we could feel, we wanted you for our tutors in studies of the self, ours and yours. To tell the story because it's a-hankering to be told. The novel was more cyclonic in form before the final edit; I attributed extra value to narrative contiguities once I had hung out with non-writers and babies for a while. I wanted the book to fly.
Flirtation has to do with how the lambs are led along the corridor of doom. How they go and go. How they continue up the ramp while their cousins shriek. It has nothing to do with Easter. With men and beasts, rather, and strangers who may be beastly though their flirting may become on occasion beautiful. The natural frame of the plate glass composes him in savoury labour, up to the wristwatch in precision. He peeks through the space where the organs were to a woman's tenuous shock. Hooked by the blood of someone else. Thing else. Some other things public juice. And the fixed sway of the dead meat muscleCameo is a sitting duck.
Cameo coaxes the lamb chops from their wax paper sleeve and lays them on sizzling garlic. She scoops mint jelly into one of her mom's old teacups, and amuses herself while the meat goes bloody by holding the porcelain overheadthere they are, as delightful as when she was a girl, green shadows flickering through the cup's delicate filigree. Impatient to eat, she flips the chops, sniffing in their high corduroy bloom, flexing her knees to an old disco song. Gradually the element's blue flame singes her dreamy gaze and she fidgets with her too-tight bra strap, then jets out her arms at right angles and croons into the kitchen window, hopping from one foot to the other and pulsing her hips. Soon, the smell is so velvety she is near euphoric. She unloads the shining chops onto a plate, spoons coleslaw on top of the steaming jus puddle that runs off them, selects her favourite bone-handled cutlery, and sets these, a napkin and a beer on a silver tray. As she passes the hall mirror, she transfigures the carefree, dimpled smile on her face to a farcically enamelled grin, and, childlike, the round-jowled reflection catches itself awkwardly, averting its eyes, a dinner guest of inferior status. Well, fine. She just wants to fade in front of the McNeil-Lehrer Report while reading Interview. Clarence Thomas is deplorable and River Phoenix has siblings named Rain, Liberty and Summer, and Keanu Reeves is part Hawaiianso that's itexplaining his preternatural gaze. She thinks about licking his eyelids. She doesn't mind such overlays, allowing that the real Keen and his big-screen simulacra have little in common. The pastoral fogs up and loses its colour when she remembers Keanu went to the same high school as an ex-lover's sister, Korona, the mesmerically sirenic just-past-teenagehood dyke who moves like a rock stud at the Marzipan Room. Same eyes. She considers herself curled up in a wet tongue licking those eyelids. Then the newscaster misses a beat describing a murder-suicide in which the ex-boyfriend used two industrial meat hooks to set up the nooses. She shuffles into the kitchen, unloads pink bones into the garbage, rinses her plate and balances it in the dish rack. Humming an unforgettable TV ad promoting eternal brand loyalty, she flicks the one-cup switch on the espresso machine and reaches for pungent cinnamon and powdery, bittersweet cocoa.
Cameo goes to the local butcher, a garrulous older Polish woman, because the baby needs lots of iron and protein. Hardcore nutrition. This meant meat and potatoes, meat and rice, meat and pasta when Cameo was growing up. Lamb stew, pot roast, liver and onions, spareribs with ketchup applied during the last ten minutes to get a braised country look. She imagines the placental tissue forming, a red sirloin in the epicentre of her psyche. Like drawings she happened upon at a gallery, of galactic uteri with trees and dreams growing inside. Already her own dreams make her anxious. She takes a baby boy home from a supermarket, and somehow he can already talk. She writhes about rubbing herself while holding him tucked under one arm, then says, Do you want to lick me? He wags his tongue, starts slurping at her vulva. After a moment he stops and looks up, cream all over his soft little chin. She runs the tapwater and says maternally, Do you want a drink? She tells people who ask that she's keeping him if no one claims him back. The dream's meaning escapes her over the cup of coffee she leans into the next morning, before she goes to the deli where the Polish butcher will wink at her, Ah, look at the glow on that one, making a big deal, and Cameo will like the invasive boastfulness of her, the European excess; her motherishness.
All week, in fact, she thinks a wordless blur of foodstuffs. The bakery woos, Fresh Valentine Cakes Available. Signs like this keep Cameo on track from day to day, remind her that English is the official language even for her meandering body's new requirements. When the other butcher, the young one out on the Danforth, slicks his sweet right eyebrow to the ceiling, he is flirting in the queen's own tongue, though his first language is probably Greek. In a fit of hysteria libidinosa he might mutter in his mother tongue if she lapped his incurvate dimples. Or would he wish this? Cameo silently paraphrases in pig Latin how he undresses her in quick swipes, opchay opchay, opchay, why waste such a precise and professional syntax! Try to make sense, baby-mother, she chides herself, tenting her shoulders forward to contain the cross-continental sound loop. A sign propped up in the cooler says, Fresh Lamb Whole Or Pieces Suit Your Fancy. Speechless again, she sees that the flirtatious butcher's open freezer is layered with the slight upside-down leftovers of lambs dreaming the disembodied envelopes of fur back onto their rib cages. She starts shivering. He says, What'll it be, miss? With those eyes, he could be her cousin. When Cameo comes here she dislikes the imbalance, like she's a plate in a dish rack about to topple, but she does come. And each time: the frightening image of a man with a knife imposes itself into the hem of her ahem-hawing as she stands at the pink-smeared counter. For what order to be uttered, or redress to arise. Sawdust in her nostrils, metal blade at her view's rim. Always at the edges his hand the wrist the blood the appetite. Sudden. Her eyes close.
Once Cameo had thought about mother's cream in a strange way, a way she could not after that first time continue to speak of. She began to live it in code, through images of food, since cream was a food to begin with. There was no other sort of cream she could allow out of a mother's body. When she thought of cream or milk her thoughts often turned quite pleasurably to snow, and then her arms would be swimming in it, folding it back onto itself like slow motion film images of milk spilling on a tabletop. Liking this picture, she had always wanted to go swinging in a snowstorm, but was thwarted by Parks & Rec's policy of packing the playground away in late November. Children were known to get overheated and absent-minded in their snowsuits, and the city could not be responsible for them burrowing sleepily into snowbanks and freezing to death. She had almost frozen once, surrendering too long on the walk home from school. The cold felt like milk being swallowed as it slowly entered her, and she thought of her mother, paying the babysitter for the hour of lunchtime she was wasting flatbacked on the bank, thinking of milk and a creaminess she couldn't place but missed somehow, like snow angels in summer.
Sometimes Cameo feels like the carcass slung on the silver crook, the freshly stripped and gutted one mounted in the showcase to attract discerning customers. When she stops to look through the plate glass she finds her own face grafted on the plate glass looking back at herself, soft into the desiring hook of her eye. Perhaps she is the woman she likes to flirt with, midday, as much as she flirts with her threshold for abjection. Yes, part of going out into the world each afternoon is to catch herself in it, raw and available. She slowly learns how to protect the butcher, who winks and waves from inside the shop, from her gut hankering for the woman between them.
That night, the mother and the aunt sit on chairs pulled tight to the kitchen table. Their elbows grind into the wood surface connecting them. A glass of milk slides around in its own white spillage. Don't you ever take Cameo there again. How can you be so pigheaded? Don't you speak about me, we're talking about you. You have no right to talk about me like this, Chari, you have no clue. All I knowIs nothing, is pig shit. Is what is moral. Your morality is a castoff, from Dad, from the system, from the goddamned church. And what happened to you, how did you get to be so selfish? Being true to myself isn't selfish. No, Seal, what you are is confused, and I want you to keep my daughter out of your selfish confusion. This isn't Cameo's problem, it's yours, can't you admit it? If anyone here's got a problem, Seal, it's you, end of conversation.
Cameo backs down the hallway chewing the tough thumbnail she has detached absent-mindedly. Her mother's curt voice flip-flops like bad perfume in her senses. But Marilyn gave her two balloons. Aunt Chloris bought them all ice cream cones, and together they had swung her in giant leaping steps up the grassy hill. She had been dangling like a fish, giggling heartily, and the women both guffawed, a fish? Youre a whale of a girl, and don't you forget it!
Womens' creamy cream. Their cream. Mama's creaminess. Ooosshhh.
Press, Toronto: 2000