Monday, November 27, 2006

Engaging America One Thigh At a Time

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

799 words

It was Claudio's fault. He called to wish us an early Happy Thanksgiving, and afterwards, standing by the phone, I picked up the receiver and without premeditation or Wild Turkey, dialed my mom in Kentucky.

We didn't talk long. After thirteen years, my Bush-loving, Southern Baptist mother still flinches every time I say the lesbian "we." "We" planted clematis and a dogwood. We're having Marina's mom and brother here for the holiday.

She did her best for a change, though, when she said, "You all have a nice Thanksgiving." Note the plural. She didn't even promise to pray for me.

One sister's still in Louisville, too, transformed from a teenaged Kiss listening tramp, to a Sunday School teacher making presents at Christmas for us godless barbarians in New York.

I think of her every time I hear that Southern twang in Alphabet City where there's a Baptist mission. God, I'm glad I'm not her.

Three rotten marriages three kids. The boy from her first marriage is nothing but trouble. Factoring in the genetics, it's no surprise, but it didn't help the time he was trapped in the bathroom with his mom while dad number two threatened to cut everybody up, including the family dog.

When I called, and asked how Kurt was, she said he was in the army. Shape up or ship out, she told him. Now he's in Germany, a heartbeat from Iraq, still a discipline problem. I wonder if he's on his meds. He was taking heavy duty stuff for a while.

I didn't say anything to her at the time, didn't even think it. We've always had relatives in the military. When they came home to visit from Korea and Germany, my cousins were more worldly than the rest of us hayseeds. They were the most decent even, when I came out.

Their kids followed them into the family business when they were grown. My sister said one went back to Iraq this month for his second tour. He's in charge of one of those teams that goes door to door, shooting and getting shot at. He was a good kid, now who knows.

I remember that when I see all the burnt up army trucks on TV, the bombed out markets, or grieving Iraqis showing how U.S. soldiers smashed down the door then opened fire. It could be me there. It IS me. I'm an American.

Bush started it, but all our hands are dirty. So now what? Just split and leave the Sunnis and Shiites to slaughter each other when we put the knives in their hands?

What was my sister thinking to send her messed up kid over there? Better dead than, what, in jail, a nuisance, a reminder of failure?

If he survives it, he'll be destroyed. Smart thinking to put a gun in his hand, and wipe away eighteen years worth of telling him violence is wrong. Probably he'll come back, buy an AK-47, climb a tower, and pick off college students. Or queers. If he has enough limbs left to get upstairs.

I got off the phone, baked a cake, then made a paste of cumin and garlic and bitter orange, and slathered it on our Thanksgiving pork roast before shoving it in a Ziploc bag to rest overnight.

Later, smearing lotion on my chunky little legs after my bath, it was déjà vu all over again. I was marinating myself for the oven, like the pernil which still had a smooth pink skin covering the meat.

The biggest difference was that the pork was leaner (better get to the gym) and probably worth more per pound considering what I made last year. I see it as a cautionary tale, that brief sensation of my hands on my own leg imagining it carved up at the butchers, just flesh and blood.

How many Iraqis are dead now? 54,000? Three thousand Americans are kaput, and a hundred thousand wounded.

If anything, my pork roast, my thighs can help us understand Iraq. And America, too, as a vision of unity. The Us and Them thing's okay for pamphlets. It's not so good for shaping policy, or having a life with other humans in it. We need to think in different, generous terms.

The truth is, I'm a Hummel collection away from being my Mom. If I hadn't been a dyke, maybe I'd be like my sister. We all have the same streak of cold hard morality that kicks in out of the blue setting its sights on injustice, or sin.

I haven't been to Kentucky in a decade, but it's as near as my ribs. America starts right about at my thighs. Not as close as the heart, but all I have to do is take a step and I'm there.

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