All day I snap fresh sheets over antique beds, carry cart-loads of snowy towels still warm from the basement laundry, stop long enough to catch breeze from a window above Mohonk lake. All rooms must be done by three. Sweat streaks my legs, clings the green polyester uniform to breasts and back. I haul my cart from room to room, hide a book of poems in my lunch sack one day, a foreign novel the next. I tally tips; rent and tuition money.
All day a grasping tide of guests swirls around my cart. Fresh from the mountain lake, they drip abstract patterns on the floors I’ve just mopped. Stop long enough to ask for extra towels, extra glasses, extra pillows, mints. Some sidle up, some simply take.
When I reach my last room I’m tired of demands for extras, weary of bending over beds, sick of sticking my hand into strange toilets. Vacuum cleaner hose slung around my neck serpent-style; I bang into the Tower Room like an evil omen.
I don’t hear her knock above the vacuum’s hum–I jump at the hand that grasps my arm. Her eyes float behind thick glass, crossing, uncrossing. Her face twists, she struggles to speak–Can she see this special room for a minute? It’s so pretty. She leans against a walker, one leg bent beneath a jack-knifed spine. I nod and slowly she pulls herself from window to window, takes in the shining lake, gazebos edged with mountain laurel. She stands before the marble fireplace, gently fingers the carved mantel as I tuck quilts over heavy beds.
When I move towards the door, she stops me with her pale hand raised. May you have a good life. May you be loved. May you travel, she says and leaves me, open-faced with her good words: May you do what you want to do.
When I Was Thin
I bought new lace underwear by the handful, push-up bras, sheer hose, red high heels, tight skirts, enjoyed the feeling of insubstantial skin held fast, belts pulled taut against gravity.
When I was thin men pressed close, followed me home after dark, pushed their numbers into my pockets in bright cafes, addressed my legs as separate entities, my breasts as whole worlds unconquered, pleaded for entry.
When I was thin, I waited to be found out: female impersonator, double agent hell-bent on revenge against the men who once found my flesh obscene, my hair too thick, my teeth too straight, men afraid I’d bite them down to size.
When I was thin, I couldn’t fight the press of foreign flesh, unwanted hands against me, my own hands divided: one hand up, deflecting blows, the other beckoning, cupped in the curve of budding breast. I slept with the light on; when I was thin, I had no rest.
The story behind the story:
Benediction: I wrote Benediction many years after the encounter in my late teens that inspired it. I’d left home early to liberate myself from an abusive father and an untenable living situation. I put myself through college via a kaleidoscope of jobs, taking eight years to complete my BA. I worked as a cook, dishwasher, vintage clothing seller, laundry clerk, singing telegram performer, waitress, theatre costume shop worker, and memorably, a walking pina colada handing out bar fliers.
When I was nineteen I took a job as a maid at an old school luxury hotel in the mountains above New Paltz, NY. A summer job became full-time when I didn’t have enough savings, financial aid, or clear career plans to return to school. It wasn’t the worst job and it wasn’t the best. Like almost every job I’d had it taught me many things: how to snap a sheet over a bed so it floated into exactly the right position, how to make a bed with hospital corners, that bellboys were not to be trusted (tip thieves), the power of unexpected kindness, and the enduring strength of words, both spoken and written.
When I Was Thin: In an unconscious emotional response to multiple sexual assaults in my late teens/early twenties I put on a protective layer of weight. The extra poundage served its purpose for a time. Then, when I was 24 and had a few years of therapy, 12-step programs, meditation, and focused reading under my belt, I began to release my protective layer. It seemed to happen gradually, and then all at once after I took up working out like a new religion.
One day, walking up the hill in my college town, my now clownishly large jeans fell to my ankles. A passing motorist yelled out, “Hey droopy drawers! Time for some new jeans!, as I ran away frantically pulling my beloved but now outsized Girbauds. Like most women/femmes I’ve lived my life with an accompanying soundtrack of constant comment on my body, face, body parts, and clothing. But when I dropped 50 pounds, nothing prepared me for the almost instantaneous change in how I was perceived and treated in the world by men, women, friends, and my mother. It fascinated and enraged me. This piece is a distillation of my experiences, thoughts, and feelings at that time.
Maura Alia Badji is a poet/writer/songwriter/editor/ESL teacher, and Social Services worker. Her writing has appeared/is forthcoming, in TMI Project’s Stories for Change, The Citron Review, Identity Theory, boats against the current, The Deaf Poets Society, Switched-on-Gutenberg, The Skinny Poetry Review, Rogue Agent, Aeolian Harp, The Haight Ashbury Literary Journal, The Delaware Review, Pirene’s Fountain, The Buffalo News, The Phoenix Soul, The Good Men Project, This City Is a Poem, Barely South Review, and other publications. Maura earned her MFA at the University of WA, Seattle, where she served as an editorial assistant at The Seattle Review. She is the former founding editor of Paper Boat: A Literary Journal (1995-1998), and a former Special Education teacher. A New York native, Maura lives in Virginia Beach with her musician son, Ibrahim.
“Benediction” was first published in The Haight Ashbury Literary Journal.
“When I was Thin” was first published in Switched-On-Gutenberg.