What We Give, What We Take
By Randi Triant
I was fifteen years old when my mother left me for Vietnam. I want to believe she did it for me. Fay was good at lying, though, and she didn’t lose any sleep over it. Unlike me. I lost my ability to lay my head down, close my eyes, and drift off to dreamland bliss. I lost my name too. Not right away. That would come later.
What I wouldn’t give to have my real name again. To start over at forty, living a life where people know you, a life in which you can sleep a solid eight hours per night. But I can’t. I continue to go by Pete Smith, the name I took out of precaution and self-preservation. They’re not qualities to brag about. They’re both born of fear. But they keep me out of trouble in Provincetown, Massachusetts, where most of the residents—the artists, the drug addicts, the drag queens—have one philosophy in common: To hell with the past. All you have is the present. Deal with it.
Provincetown is as far east as you can get without falling into the ocean. Because the Cape is shaped like an arm curled around, what you would ordinarily think was the west end of Provincetown is actually the east end and vice versa. Without your ordinary compass, a sense of vertigo prevails. Nothing is as it seems. A man with a fake name and dark circles under his eyes can easily disappear into a place like that.
Still, I worry that my disappearing act will end as quickly as it began twenty-five years ago. Those are the nights when I let myself back into the PO so I can surround myself with the calm of sorting through envelopes and packages that haven’t been collected. I like to keep my hands busy; if they’re moving, I tend to stare at them less. I make a pot of coffee and allow myself one of those packages. I don’t just choose it willy-nilly. The package must be unclaimed for over thirty days. There are more than you’d think to choose from. It has to be one of the small ones. Those packages have an intimacy I’ll never have. Small boxes can hold objects that require forethought or a deep connection, like an engagement ring.
One night I found two packages addressed to the same woman from the same man. I couldn’t help it, I opened both, making sure that I could reseal them without the woman knowing. I eased off the tape by holding each to my desk lamp.
The first box held a common river stone. It was speckled black, smooth, and slightly sloped inward, as if it had been worried by someone’s thumb for some time. Inside the other box was a scrap of paper. “Come home,” was all it said. Nothing else. I felt like I’d seen an animal get hit by a car.
The next day I kept an eye on the rental boxes, waiting for Dorothy Smythe to collect her mail. When I finally saw a woman slide a key in box 185, I opened the Dutch gate and went over. She was a tall, slightly paunchy woman, her hair tied back in a bandana. Normally she’d be the type of woman I’d pick up at the A&P. But not this day. This day something else came over me.
“Excuse me,” I said in a low voice so that no one else would hear me. “You have two packages waiting for you.”
Dorothy Smythe stared at me as if I’d slapped her. She was just like me, wanting her anonymity and her life of not knowing anyone. It was my own worst fear of what could happen to me. Here I was, doing the same thing to her. She ducked her head as if she didn’t want me to remember her facial features. I knew the gesture well.
“I’m sorry,” I murmured. “I won’t bother you again.”
She didn’t say a word, just turned around and left. She never came back. Her stack of mail grew too large for her rental box. We never got a change of address card. Eventually, her mail stopped coming to the Provincetown PO. Dorothy Smythe was somewhere else now. Someplace where a postal clerk didn’t bother her with reminders of what she’d left behind. Someplace safe.
Earlier in the evening before my mother left, she and I had been sitting on the scratchy plaid couch in the living room of our mobile home in Key West. The evening news with Walter Cronkite was on the black-and-white television that had a bent clothes hanger for an antenna. It was April 19, 1967.
“Those poor boys,” Fay said.
“Who you talkin’ about?” Fay’s boyfriend asked. We’d moved to Key West with Johnson three months before. He was like an animal that had been caged too long: He chewed the inside of his mouth constantly, and his blue eyes seemed smaller than they were. Now he leaned against the archway into the galley kitchen, holding a half-eaten beef jerky. To the left of the living room were two small bedrooms separated by a spit of a bathroom with a shower stall the width of your waist. That was the extent of our home, a word I use loosely.
Fay pointed at the television. “There. Look.”
Walter Cronkite stood in front of a map of Vietnam with a pointer in his hand, like a schoolteacher. “American forces in Vietnam have topped the four hundred thousand mark,” he told us. “And forty-five thousand more troops are on their way.”
“There’s no end in sight,” Fay said, leaning as far toward the television as she could without falling off the couch. I tried to look interested, but every night the news showed the same footage of soldiers trudging through thick bushes with huge packs on their backs and rifles in their hands. They always seemed to be walking in circles, like a bunch of Boy Scouts on a badge mission. Sometimes there were clips of Bob Hope and a couple of beautiful girls in bikinis on some stage, with thousands of soldiers cheering them on. Vietnam was another universe, though. I couldn’t get worked up about some guys I didn’t know in some country where it rained constantly, and the grunts were up to their eyeballs in mud. There were far too many things right in that mobile home I needed to worry about.
“Ginny’s over there now,” Fay said. Ginny was a contortionist in the Amazing Humans Show, a carney that featured Fay in a water tank escape routine. The year before, the Humans show had folded. Peace-loving hippies didn’t want to see someone swallow a sword or stick a head in a vise. Ginny was my mother’s best friend. She called Fay “babydoll,” although they were almost the same age. One time—I was four—I caught her kissing Fay in our trailer. She was holding my mother, but Fay’s hands were down alongside her own thighs. Even at four years old I saw what Fay would give and what she took.
What We Give, What We Take by Randi Triant is available locally at East End Books Ptown, 389 Commercial St., 508.413.3225, eastendbooksptown.com. Triant will be reading from her book at a reception on Saturday, May 7, 5 – 9 p.m., at Provincetown Commons, 46 Bradford St., Provincetown, For information just on the reading call 508.257.1748 or visit provincetowncommons.org.