My family last lived together in a two-bedroom apartment at the end of a long, dust-colored hallway. Our building was called the Emerald Arms, though only its front door was green. Our apartment door was purple, the trim a slightly different shade of purple, the worn hall carpet yet a third shade of purple. More of a lavender, really, my father might have said. Just outside our door, a love-struck end table offered three daffodils in a colorless glass vase. The flowers were made of a gritty plastic fabric; the water they stood in was resin. You could flip them upside down and they would stay just as they were.
Inside, my parents had made the walls delirious with decoration. We had prints and postcards and prayer flags and pressed flowers and the framed (and signed) college magazine cover my father had done, an illustration of the Vietnam War in the style of Bosch's The Garden of Earthly Delights. In the kitchen hung Audubon's great blue heron, its neck turned down toward its feet to stay in the frame. Pewter incense bowls, a dull brass Ganesh, a money cat with half its face abraded. Wooden dinosaurs my brother, Paul, and I had painted when we were four and six years old, mine in fastidious segments of red, yellow, and green, his a muddy olive all over. A Walter Mondale campaign button resting at the teal pebble bottom of an otherwise empty fishbowl.
Two thirds of our living room was taken up by a Colonial dining table too large to go anywhere else. This table, my father often reminded us, was a little older than America. How I mourn that table now! It was made of oak and stained somewhere between blood and chocolate; its underside still smelled, with sour authority, of cut wood. Paul and I had sawed, scored, and even gnawed on it like animals.
Past the table was my father's art studio, which he'd demarcated with a yellow bed sheet hung from hooks screwed into the bumpy plaster ceiling. My father was a medical illustrator, and the wall above his drafting table [End Page 84] was covered with his work: splotchy melanomas, a furrowed brain, the chambers of the heart, all rendered on flimsy sheets of tracing paper.
It was a home ill suited for boys, too full of fragile things. Some of them were valuable, too: in my parents' bedroom was a Diebenkorn study in pencil given by my mother's parents as a wedding gift; my father kept a handful of rare books locked in a barrister's bookcase in his studio.
I had always longed to open one of those books, which, with their tattered leather spines and titles debossed in faded metallic serif, were indistinguishable from the grimoires that populated the fantasy books I read. One afternoon, I got my wish. The little golden combination lock had been left off the bookcase. My father often read late into the night, drink in hand, and must have forgotten. He was out for the day, and Paul and I weren't sure when he would return. I eased the glass door of the bookcase up and pulled out a book at random. That was how my brother and I ended up under the massive dining table with a copy—a first edition, it turned out—of Operative Gynecology, written by Dr. Herman Kelly and illustrated by Max Brödel. I was eleven. My brother was nine.
We had opened the book hoping to find a fantastical bestiary or an index of incantations. Instead, we got our first tour of the female body. I remember one drawing of a man's pointer and middle finger fully inserted into (it took me a moment to realize what I was looking at) a woman's rectum. The doctor's thumb rested in the woman's pubic hair. The woman's abdomen had been cross-sectioned along its vertical axis to reveal the doctor's fingers, the walls of her colon, even the bubbly interior texture of her vertebrae. I turned the pages, saw swollen and diseased labia, prolapsed...