Serena in the Afterlife
Serena lands in the afterlife. She isn’t hot. She isn’t cold. She isn’t a house. She is human. She climbs through a window that isn’t attached to a house, a barn, or boat, or a plane. She is inside. A woman wearing a green mini-dress and black and green striped shoes, and black earrings exactly like a pair Serena once owned, is standing in front of Serena. Hi, I’m your neighbor. This is where you will live, the woman says. Serena is confused. Wasn’t I supposed to enter my fourth life as a home? Isn’t my purpose to build more like me? You haven’t finished with your previous life. See, it’s followed you here, the neighbor says. What? Where? Serena asks, looking around the vacant house. You have to stay here and face it, or you’ll be stuck in life after life for lives to come, the woman says. It is only day one. Serena is a single woman without luggage. Her new home has many doors. Why so many rooms? Is she living on a game show set? Is there anyone else living in the house? Is there more than one bathroom? A big kitchen? Serena always wanted a decent sized kitchen, with double sinks, and a counter/island thing, which could double as a bar for parties, and a breakfast table the morning after. The neighbor tells Serena to get settled, and then she leaves. Serena locates the kitchen. In a cupboard she finds a plastic doll spray painted hot pink and an empty bottle of Seagram’s Seven. She feels queasy. Did she drink the whole bottle in another life? Who or what was she before? The kitchen has two sinks and counter space, and sadly no island. There is an old round table in the middle of the room, covered with a weary tablecloth in need of a loving washing, and three forgotten wobbly chairs. Serena sits down and begins to write a list of what she’s going to clean, throw away, and fix.
On the second day Serena asks her neighbor, why aren’t there any clocks? We have no measurements of time, the woman says. Daylight savings time does not exist here. Our people opted out of the dangerous tradition of moving the hands of time. We trust nature to adjust light according to the seasons. Then she tells Serena, I have to take your watch. Serena says, no, oh no, no. The woman says, hand it over. Serena moans as she gives away her precious time. Serena, time is water. It isn’t round on a wall, or wrapped around a wrist, or bright on a cell phone, or punchy on a time clock. Serena is a time worshipper. Don’t get confused. She isn’t a time whisperer. Time is her god and goddess, her king and queen, her president and vice president. How will Serena know when it is time to do the thing that has to be done at a certain time? Serena doesn’t want to live in the abstract, though if she could live in the land of surrealism, she’s sign up for that life. Welcome to your life without time, her neighbor says smiling. Serena frowns. Then she remembers when she was a girl she swallowed a clock, and she knows it is still inside of her. Tick- tock! she just heard it. She still has time for herself.
While Serena played with others when she was young, she believed she needed more than others. Not things, but attention, and not the kind she received. She wanted to be heard, though it hurt to talk. On her twelfth birthday she woke in a hospital bed. Someone had taken her clothes off, (without her knowing it!) and put her in a flimsy pink flowered faded cotton gown. Serena’s mouth couldn’t move. She couldn’t feel her tongue. A nurse in a full length crimson colored dress, a royal blue sash tied around her waist, and a tiara on her head, told Serena, your vocal cords have been extracted because someone was afraid you would finally tell the secret. What secret? After the surgery Serena had a sore throat and was mad at the world. She wanted everyone to get out of her way. She walked into people, irritated that they were in her path. She was in such a hurry to get somewhere early, never on time, she had to arrive early, that she didn’t see the person. She entered an elevator, and when she saw someone running to catch it, she pushed the close elevator door button. She could only see herself and what she thought she had to have, had to do.
Right before Serena’s third life ended, and her fourth life began, a friend of Serena’s called her and said she was feeling odd, dizzy, out of sorts. Serena wanted to help her friend, but she thought, tonight feels like a night I’m going to sleep. She didn’t want another sleepless night, like the night before and the night before that night, and on an on. Selfish Serena told her friend she didn’t feel well either. That night Serena dreamt someone had left her with a baby, who had the adult face of her friend, and the body of a baby girl. She was six months old and walking and talking and crying and angry. Serena wanted the baby to go to sleep so Serena could read a serious book. The baby refused to go to bed. No! she yelled and stomped her baby feet, which were outfitted in hiking boots. I won’t sleep until you tell me why you hurt my feelings, the baby said. Suddenly Serena woke up and her right hand was still asleep. In the morning Serena’s friend called and told Serena that she had tripped in the night, and broken her left wrist. Her friend was left-handed. Serena said out loud, I will be kind. I will be considerate. She took three buses to her friend’s house, and once there, Serena got immediately to work, doing her friend’s laundry, and washing her friend’s dishes. Her friend was grateful. As Serena was readying to leave she noticed a tear inching down her friend’s face. Serena leaned in and kissed her friend’s left wrist. She told her friend she was sorry, and then told her about the dream. Serena knows things in dreams do really happen. Then come true.
Serena isn’t dreaming now. She’s in her fourth life. Serena notices the mirror above the bathroom sink is shattered. Her neighbor says, a woman who didn’t survive her afterlife once lived here. Serena wants to know how is it possible to die in the afterlife. Aren’t you alive forever? The neighbor tells Serena the following information, which is also advice. The woman who lived here before only cared for, and about, herself. We had to send her away. Though, if you want to know the truth, she sent herself away. She smashed the mirror with her elbow. Now that this is your home, you will repair the mirror by looking at your reflection and saying three times a day, for three weeks, I am Serena. I will care. I will share. Then you will no longer live in a broken home. You will hear someone crying and you will do the right thing. Serena feels ruby shame, but doesn’t tell her neighbor. Once her neighbor leaves, Serena sits down in a chair in her kitchen and adds to her list, “I will not be selfish anymore.”
It is an ordinary day in the afterlife. After a breakfast of oatmeal with almonds and sliced apples, and two cups of Jasmine tea, Serena washes and dries her cup, bowl and spoon, wipes down the counters with a divine lavender cleaner, sweeps the floor, and throws her small bag of trash in the plastic bin in her backyard. Of course Serena has work to do on herself, on her issues, but today, she can’t waste another day thinking only about Serena and Serena’s world. She tells herself, Serena, you will sit in the chair and read 77 Dream Songs by John Berryman. I’m going outside without you. Serena, the self who is now at the door, waves goodbye to the other Serena, who feels alone and left behind.
Serena pulls out her list of cleaning supplies she has to replenish.
There are stores in the afterlife, something Serena hasn’t mentioned before. She hasn’t described her setting. Once in a writing class, Serena turned in a short story she thought explored how someone like her came to be, and she thought her story could help others who had had similar experiences. Her classmate Frank wrote on her paper, your writing is too dreamy, it distances the reader from the reality of what you are attempting (and failing) to recount. Your experience is too rooted in your head, and you are an unreliable narrator. Are you trying to pass nonfiction off as fiction? If so, you’ve failed. Do you think you are a writer? You aren’t, and never will be! You’re losing this reader and every other reader in the class. I am going to ask the teacher to kick you out of class, and then you will never write another word. Readers everywhere will simultaneously sigh relief, and say, no more bad words from that non-writer Serena! Serena was upset and met with the teacher, who said Frank’s assessment of Serena’s work was accurate, and she considered suspending Serena from class, and possibly even expelling her from the college, and then alerting every admission department of every college and university all over the country to never admit Serena to their school. But then the instructor recalled a teacher who had once believed in her, and the instructor decided to give Serena a second chance. She told Serena to write about something other than herself. The paper must be 10 pages, double-spaced, and must be turned in on Monday, not by Monday, or before Monday, but ON Monday!
Here I am still thinking about myself, Serena says a loud as she continues toward the store. I need to do something today for someone else. And then a woman tumbles down the stairs of an apartment building. Serena watches horrified as the woman flies through the air, and lands on the unforgiving sidewalk. Serena, and a man with a kind face, rushes over to the woman, and crouching down, they both ask, are you okay? They know she isn’t, how can she be? She hit the back of her head on the cement. Don’t move, the man says. I can’t move, the woman says. Over the protests from the woman that she doesn’t have insurance, Serena calls an ambulance. The man tries to reassure her that she won’t have to pay. Serena tries to explain where they are. She tells the woman, we are in the afterlife, and no one has to pay unless you haven’t paid in your previous life. Am I alive? the woman asks. Serena takes her hand and tells her, you’ve entered another life, and I will be your guide. Serena is surprised she said that.
Serena’s phone is ringing and her teakettle is whistling. She turns off the kettle and reaches for the phone, expecting her neighbor to be on the other line.
Hello, Serena says.
Is this Serena? a unfamiliar voice asks.
Yes, this is she.
You were mean to me, the caller says, and then abruptly hangs up.
As soon as Serena sets the receiver back in its cradle, the phone rings again.
Hello, Serena says.
Is this Serena? a slightly familiar voice asks.
You were mean to me! the caller shouts, and then hangs up.
The voice sounds like someone Serena once knew, but whom?
When the phone rings again, Serena asks, who is this?
The caller asks, who is this?
Serena says, this is Serena. Are you mad at me?
The caller says, you were nice to me. Oh wait! I have the wrong Serena call list. I’m supposed to only call the nice Serena, and that’s not you! Caller #3 hangs up her phone. Serena stares at the receiver and listens to the dial tone until a voice sternly orders Serena, to hang up the phone now!
And as she does, it rings another time. Caller #4. Serena answers the phone, and says, this is Serena, was I mean to you?
You were very mean to me and my dog, the caller says.
Your dog? Serena asks. That’s not true! While she is afraid of dogs she has been in serious like with a few dogs. Cats are her problem. They make her skin itch and her eyelids swell. The caller has hang up, and Serena is talking to herself.
Why have I been so mean? Why won’t anyone tell me who they are, and what I’ve done? Serena asks, as she hangs up the phone.
The phone rings for the fifth time. Serena refuses to answer it. The longer she ignores it, the louder the ringing becomes, and eventually she will have to answer it, or leave her home. And she hasn’t yet had her tea and toast.
She picks up the receiver, and says, this is Serena. I know I’ve been mean to you and many others. Can you please tell me, caller #5, what did I do to you?
Hi Serena, this is your neighbor. You have been both mean and nice to me. You have been both mean and nice to yourself. Until you stop being mean to yourself, you won’t be able to be nice to others, and you will continue to receive calls from angry people from your past lives.
I want to stop being mean. I care more about hurting other people’s feelings than mine, Serena says. I can take it. I want other people to like me. They won’t always like you, Serena’s neighbor says. You need to first treat yourself with kindness.
How? Serena asks.
Her neighbor tells Serena, start now. Today. Take a break. Do your work, and stop and assist others, and let them do what they need to do. You can’t do everyone’s job. There is so little we can control. Release those tight shoulders. Go to yoga.
Serena does just that. After, she is relaxed and calm. Her phone is kindly quiet the rest of the night. The next day Serena goes for a long walk.
She tries to recall the occasions she was mean and she can’t, or she won’t, which is more truthful. Instead she remembers how she felt after, not the very same day, but years later when a flash of the incident returns. Serena wonders why the person she hurt didn’t hurt her back. She doesn’t EVER condone violence nor does she want anyone EVER to be physically harmed. Still she wonders, why didn’t they hit her, which is wrong, SO wrong, no one deserves to be hit. Even Serena. Still when she believes she has been cruel to someone, she lightly slaps herself on her right cheek. She takes the hurt of others, for others. Serena punishes herself more than anyone else can. She will hurt herself before someone else does. Serena is going way away from where she should be going. She was mean to others and she never apologized or made amends. Hurting herself won’t take back the hurt that she has caused others.
Serena decides that it is time to face it.
She reverse dials caller#1 and asks, what did I do you?
The person who answers the phone has long since died, and is now living a second life, but he doesn’t live in the same afterlife as Serena does. It was in the early 1970’s. I was leaving to see my ill aunt, whom I adored, who raised me, the caller says. Stop! Don’t tell me anymore, I remember, Serena says. The caller says, no, you stop, Serena and listen to the rest of the story. Serena shuts up. You smiled at me, and said, have a nice vacation, the caller says. That was the last time I saw my aunt alive. Two days after I flew back home, she died. I had to get back on a plane to attend her funeral. Serena, you are the most insensitive person I’ve ever met. I have nothing else to say to you, he says, and then hangs up. The caller was an adult friend of her parents, and he often came over. There was something about him that frightened Serena though he was always nice to her. He never hit her or looked at her in any other way than with kindness. Once Serena became an aunt, she remembered what she said back then when she was seventeen years old. She was mean. She was wicked. She is sorry now. It is too late.
Serena redials caller #2. On what date in what year was I mean to you? Serena asks the person who answers the phone. There are too many days to assign only one day as the day you were mean to me, the very familiar voice says. Serena knew one day this call would come, and she thought she’d be ready. She knew she’d been mean to this person, but mean may not be the right word for how Serena treated the caller. This person tried to come to Serena over the course of seven years to tell Serena something big and important and awful. Serena was always too busy. She practiced living in the right now, which she believed meant focusing on very important tasks, not on very important problems. The house has to be cleaned! Bills have to be paid! Leaved have to be raked! Dinner has to be cooked! Dishes have to be washed! Once a friend told her, slow down Serena. Life is not a relay race. Serena has never run a race with her body strength. Her muscular mind is a runner, speed walking toward every job that needs doing. Hurry, hurry, c’mon Serena, it’s on to the next thing that must get done, by you, and only you.
Serena doesn’t reverse dial caller #3. Remember the caller was looking for the nice Serena? Our Serena isn’t yet on that list.
Next Serena redials the caller with the dog. When the person answers, she says, go ahead tell me what I did. I will listen now. The caller puts the dog on the phone. The dog says, don’t you remember the time you agreed to take care of me while my friend was away? You came the first night and stayed over. The second night you didn’t show. I had to run to your house, bark at your front door, and tell you that I was staying with you until my friend came home. Serena remembers the dog ordered Serena to feed, brush, pet and love her.
In Serena’s last life she tallied up her failings, and then she burned the list before anyone found it and asked her to change right now! She didn’t think she could. She was wrong, always wrong. Once her nephew said, you’re neurotic. No, I’m not, she said. Then he said, okay you’re paranoid. She agreed. Serena thought if she constantly worried, she could stop a horrible thing from happening, or at least be prepared when it did happen. She entered the afterlife a compound fraction of all her lived lives. You have to fix your faults and right your wrongs, Serena’s neighbor reminds Serena. In this scary house? Serena asks the neighbor. Serena believes the woman who once lived in her house haunted it. Serena is already too self absorbed. That’s what paranoia is. Intense focusing on your own mind. Serena is very good at intense focusing on her own mind. She wants to talk to the dead woman. She wants to find out what happened to her to ensure the same thing doesn’t happen to Serena. Where are you now? Serena asks out loud. The woman can’t answer. She is hiding. Dear terrified Serena, you know where to look. You’ve been there before.
On her first attempt to break through, Serena knocks her body into what appears to be a gentle wall. Soft as the powder she used to put on her feet in the summer to save her comfortable sandals. The powder an impossible dream, her summer feet still embarrassingly stunk. She never understood how beautiful, tall and rightly curvy, young New York City women walked everywhere in summer in adorably expensive, painfully high, sandals. She believed their feet never smelled bad and never hurt and never blistered. Wait until you get older, she hissed as she passed yet another lofty female. Serena couldn’t do anything about her feet then, and now in her fourth life, she has bigger things to do. When she was a young troubled girl, Serena had the power and the will and the need to move beyond walls, and she could, and she did. She kicked off her kind-of-cute- oh-so-comfortable shoes, and then opened one door, which opened into another, and then another until she entered a stunning field of magenta flowers. She heard whispering and laughing though she didn’t see anyone. You may wonder why Serena didn’t live there forever. Someone who needed her to do something always called Serena back. In her life after life she is convinced that behind one of her walls is the dead woman. On Serena’s first night, she was startled awake by the sound of a woman moaning and then her haunting question, Can’t someone held me? Serena wants to help the woman. She feels a long time kinship to the wailing woman. Her voice sounds like Serena’s.
Serena knows some babies are born in, and from, mud. Though it can’t be seen, please believe her, it is there. Seriously. Heavy. Filthly. Years of bathing can’t wash off the mud. Religion can’t wash off the mud. Nice people can’t wash off the mud. The muddy ones are mud babies who become mud kids. By the time some reach the chronological age of an adult, they haven’t yet received the love and tenderness to pull them out of the mud. Serena has felt dirty in most of her lives. In her fourth afterlife, Serena’s home has many bathing rooms. She invites the mud kids, who live next door in a small sad house that cries every night at three a.m., to take a shower or a bath. She tells them they can take as much time as they want. They don’t have to clean up the room when they are done, Serena will. They can use any bath products they want. They can play music if they want. They can read a book if they want. They can have a beverage if they want. They can eat a pretty peach or a bowl of purple pasta or anything they have always wanted to eat but didn’t have the money or the chance to eat. They can sing if they want. They can scream if they want. They can cry if they want. They can laugh if they want. They can write a letter if they want. They are treated special. Serena needs to explain the word special. The mud kids once were told they were special, while being subjected to things that made them feel not special, but weird and sad and stuck. As they grew older the mud began to spread, covering their skin, like a rash. When the mud kids are cleaning off the years of dirt, the others-- the people who everyone considers the real special people, the fully realized adults--read books about the lives of the mud kids. They get to take breaks and eat their favorite foods and talk to each other about what they’ve read. They hug anyone who wants a hug. And when the mud kids are done bathing, some will be ready to be take a new name, and some will want to take more baths before they feel free of mud, and let’s be realistic, some will never be able to wash off the mud, and Serena will not ignore that group, as she once felt ignored. Serena will love them no matter what. Then the ones formerly know as the mud kid and the ones in between, will be friends with the others who’ve never known mud. No one is special and everyone is special.
Serena needs to discuss something that she could never talk to anyone about in any of her previous lives. People would have misunderstood her. When she was a girl she hid in the hallway closet and gripped the longest coats, trying to stop the spinning. She always left the closet with a horrendous headache, and no answers. Is this a safe place to be honest? she asks her afterlife neighbor. The woman says, yes. Serena doesn’t trust the woman. Remember, she took Serena’s watch. Serena decides to write about what she wants to understand. Then she’ll talk about it. And please don’t let anyone hurt her or sing to her the old folk song, “Which Side Are You On?” The haunting song brings Serena to her knees whenever she hears it. Reminds her of The Grapes of Wrath. Once a friend of hers was watching a movie based on the book, and Serena said, I need to see this. I read the book. Serena only watched a half-hour of the movie. She couldn’t bear witness to the hopelessness of the people’s circumstances and the hardships they encountered. How did they continue? All the suffering and still they forged on.
Now back to what we were just beginning to discuss. Serena is ready to write about it.
Please give Serena some space.
She’s on your side too.
As Serena mentioned above, first she needs to write about it. Serena once had a friend (you know what that means, right?) who was hurt when she was a tiny girl. This hurting went on for seven years, and it finally stopped when Serena’s friend moved away from home. Serena wanted to ask the friend to explain what happened after. She knows what happens during. Her friend wrote about it in her journal and then gave it to Serena to read. Each word, in each sentence, in each paragraph, on each page, felt familiar to Serena, and she developed a sick headache. Serena comforted her friend then and she still comforts her friend. Serena wonders what was taken from her friend? What was she left with? Serena has heard the words, betrayed, shamed, violated. She knows the meaning of the three words and similar words. But the words aren’t clear enough. Serena needs time to think. The second week in her new home, Serena enters her dream closet. Lavender sprouts out of the ceiling. A bountiful pot of basil sits in the far left corner, and in the far right corner, tomatoes vines crawl up the wall. Rats aren’t welcome here. She closes her eyes, places her left hand on her heart, and her right hand on her stomach, and performs a three-part breathing exercise she learned from a calm centered friend.
Then, this came to her.
Every baby born is born with a safety ring circling its heart. When a child is hurt the band of protection weakens. If the hurting continues the ring snaps. In the most severe cases a triangle barges in, assaulting the heart. Its sharp dangerous edges can even sprout nails, which torture the child and anyone who comes near the child. With extensive gentle care, flowers of kindness, and many long baths, a triangle’s corners can soften, reshaping into a circle. There will always be vulnerable places in the band, which will need the strength of the rest of the circle ensuring it won’t break again.
In the afterlife Serena meets the Carter-Cash clan. She talks to them about song writing and song singing. Serena especially enjoys discussing with A.P. (Alvin Pleasant) how he came up with the idea to rewrite the lyrics to Ada Ruth Habershon’s hymn “Will the Circle be Unbroken,” and changed the title to “Can the Circle be Unbroken.” Serena doesn’t analyze each line, rather she examines the idea. She’s always loved circles, and many round things. Bicycle tires, apples, tomatoes, and record albums. She was born with a baby circle and her circle broke or snapped or gave way. She’s not sure how it happened. She knows she was young and once she even thought she was born without a circle. Can someone tell her what that means? How did the Carter family keep their circle together? And then along came Johnny. Serena loves his singing. Even more she loves how he wrote down The 100 Most Essential Country Songs, for his daughter Roseanne. Years later she released the award winning CD, The List. Serena imagines in another life, she’ll be kin to a musical family, passing on what’s been passed on to her.
Serena was never taught how to nurture nature. Each seed or sprout or egg she touched immediately died. Are her hands cursed? She believes in curses. There was a time she considered putting a curse on someone, then she found out she didn’t have such powers, even though her great-grandmother read tealeaves, her grandmother gazed into a crystal ball every waning and waxing moon, and her mother gave free tarot card readings when girls in the neighborhood started menstruating. Serena was told in a previous life she was a love doctor. How could she heal the lovesick and the heartsick? She’s disappointed the valve connecting the heart to the head and the feet. In one of her lives, sharp chest pains forced her to slow down, and to pay attention to the wood holding her together. Bones, joints, muscles. Every time she fell down, she fell on her left knee, causing her right knee to be resentful it had to do all the work. There’s always a left side and always a right side. While Serena is right handed, she leans to the left. And that side is the side that suffers the most. In her backyard, in her fourth life, Serena plunges her hands, arthritic from eating bowls of tomatoes, into the dirt, unearthing twisted colorful roots, which finally ends the curse. Her hands and wrists unfold, her bones strengthen, and her joints move freely. Serena proudly stands sturdy on both sides.
Serena doesn’t believe in anything except for what she can see and taste. What’s alive! She worships trees, sky, dirt, worms, ladybugs, birds, butterflies, bees, oregano, dill, rosemary, cumin, paprika, coriander, and cinnamon. She could continue this list for another day or two, and she will at another time. Serena hails from the same hometown as Jimi Hendrix did. They go way back. Once Serena and her nephew and her sister all lived in a run down house. They had an extra room with a sign on the door, which read “Jimi’s room.” He was their traveling cousin. They never lost the faith that Jimi would come home, stay home, and join their family. Often times Serena, her nephew, and her sister would quarrel. She doesn’t recall why or what brought on these disagreements. She does recall how they ended. One of them would suggest, let’s listen to Hendrix. Which album? They had all of Jimi’s records. Can we play both sides of Axis Bold as Love, Serena asked? They all agreed. Then this family of three quieted and believed in something other than self-destruction. Serena’s neighbor in the afterlife asked, have you ever listen to Coltrane? Yes, I have, Serena says. But I haven’t followed him as closely as I have followed Hendrix. Did you know there is a John Coltrane church in San Francisco, which is officially called Saint John Will-I-Am Coltrane African Orthodox Church? Coltrane is the genuine love supreme. Some say Coltrane claimed he wanted to be a saint. He has many followers. On Tuesday afternoons a radio station in San Francisco plays Coltrane for fours hours. We get the program here, the neighbor tells Serena. Serena tunes in on the next Tuesday and every Tuesday after. She continues to listens to Hendrix, though she knows he wasn’t a saint. Rejoicing she sings, I got the music in me! I got the music in me! (Thanks, Kiki Dee)
Serena constantly complains. About everything. In every life she’s ever lived, she has whined and worried. She could open a room in her afterlife home, and christen it the complaint department. Serena would be the most valued customer, and would be given the special 25% employee discount. When a big problem comes up, first Serna gets mad, and then she can’t deal, so she runs to find someone else to fix it. She moans about what a waste of time the big problem is and then she wastes time boo-hooing about it.
Once a boss wrote in a performance review, Serena needs to get involved in her assignments, not just perform them. Too often she can’t recall a phone call or a conversation. What is she doing all day back in the last cubicle of cubicles?
Her boss was right. Serena thinks about a task as a race and she has to complete it now, not later, but now! She may forget what happened a few hours ago, but ask her about something that happened in 1975, and she can tell you clearly as if it happened yesterday. And it did. Another boss told Serena, you talk too fast, and you are too negative and why don’t you ever smile? He told her she wasn’t allowed to talk the rest of the day. Serena loves to talk, but she also wanted (still wants) to follow rules and wanted (and still wants) to swing her downward dogface upward.
Serena wakes on her 30th morning in the afterlife. The night before she dreamed she was the only waiter in a busy restaurant, and everyone wanted water, and all the water all over the world had evaporated. Serena is exhausted and deeply worried by the dream. She goes into her kitchen, puts water in the kettle for tea. She sighs. She thinks. In her last life she followed an unrelenting work ethic. Even when she was sick on the couch, she obsessed over the things she’d do once she was better. Often she’d get up and do at least one or two of the things she shouldn’t do yet. In the afterlife she still doesn’t know how to relax. How can she? She has to work through her files of flaws and mountains of mistakes. It’s a long list, and she keeps adding to it. Serena claps her hands together, and says out loud, I need to get busy!
Then there is a knock on her door. It is her neighbor. Come in, do you want a cup of tea? Serena asks. No, thank you. I’m here on seriously official business, says the neighbor. Am I in trouble? Serena asks. Since she’s arrived, Serena constantly worries she’s not getting enough done, and she will be told to leave. Some of the others have filed a complaint about you, the neighbor says. About me? What have I done so far? I’ve only been here a month, Serena says. The neighbor hands Serena an envelope and then orders Serena to read the letter and then sign it and give it back to her tomorrow at noon. The neighbor leaves.
Serena sits down, closes her eyes, and says out loud, I can handle anything the letter says, can’t I? She opens her eyes and slides the letter out of the envelope.
Before she begins to read it, she notices the structure is like a poem. A new set of words, on each line.
Here is what she read, and it wasn’t very poetic.
We the people of the afterlife would like to file a seriously official complaint against Serena.
We can’t understand her.
Serena has a stumbling tongue.
Serena doesn’t enunciate.
Serena blurs words.
Serena speaks in paragraphs without punctuation.
Serena doesn’t EVER place a comma in the correct position in a sentence.
Serena is afraid of colons and semi-colons.
Serena makes up words.
Serna slurs words.
Serena has a rudimentary vocabulary.
Serena doesn’t know the proper sentence placement for “that,” and when not to use “that”
Serena doesn’t know what to do with small words: in, into, in to, with, by…and on and on
Serena uses only simple words.
Serena must stop talking so much.
Serena must listen.
She must respect our words and her words.
She must read Moby-Dick a loud in her home.
She must take a vocabulary/sentence/spelling/grammar class.
We will then meet with her, and she will give a presentation on Moby-Dick. We will ask her questions. She will diagram sentences on the chalkboard. Then she will sit quietly and still. Absolutely no fidgeting! We will discuss how, or if, she will join our community.
The Concerned Committee of the Afterlife.
Serena drops the letter on her table and sits down. She remembers often crying as a teenager and wanting someone to ask her what was wrong. She remembers as a woman in her twenties having a furious cry and scolding herself, it’s time for you to stop this! After reading the letter from the committee Serena believes she will never cry again. She says out loud, they are right. I do have terrible communication skills. She sits down. She reads Moby-Dick, while drinking many cups of green tea with lavender sprigs. She hires a tutor. She reads basic comp books and then the tutor gives her a quiz. She fails several times and the tutor is exasperated. Why can’t you learn this easy stuff? You are the worst student I’ve ever taught.
Then Serena breaks her no crying rule, and goes to the bathroom and cries. She feels as awful as she did when she failed elementary algebra seven times, and had to take a basic arithmetic class, and then she found a patient teacher who explained to her the illogical logic of numbers. The teacher told Serena, numbers are the only thing you can count on. Serena disagreed. Mixing negative and positive numbers confused Serena. Finally she took Algebra again, passing with an “A.” She next took Statistics, which she loved, because she made a game out of memorizing the formulas. In the afterlife, Serena looks into her broken mirror, and tells her reflection, I will try one more time, and if I fail again, I will never write another word on paper. This time she passes! The tutor says, I didn’t think you could do it. You will need teaching the rest of your life, but for now, you have enough to live on. Once the tutor leaves, Serena calls her neighbor to come over. Her neighbor asks, what’s up? Serene tells her, I’m ready to meet with the committee. What committee? the neighbor asks. Serena is confused. Remember the letter you gave me? Her neighbor says, what letter? Serena is confused. Did she imagine the letter? Serena goes to her kitchen to retrieve the letter and the letter is gone. Serena is confused. She explains to her neighbor what the letter said. Her neighbor says, you do need to listen. You do need to speak slower and clearer. You do have a simple vocabulary. You can’t spell. You overuse and underuse the word “that.” Your grammar is backwards. Have you ever heard of the word syntax? Do you even know the purpose of a comma, a colon, and a semi-colon? (Serena right now wants to sit in a room of only books and live there forever and talk to no one.) Then the neighbor asks Serena if she enjoyed Moby-Dick. She didn’t love the book as much as others have. But, she lies, and tells her neighbor, I loved it! Her neighbor leaves and Serena goes back in the kitchen and the letter is on the table. She pounds her fist on the table and yells, this confusion has got to stop!
In the quiet of her kitchen Serena decides not to talk to herself. Today her voice will not interrupt her thoughts. She hears the committee yell, Serena needs to listen! Serena interrupts! Serena mumbles! Serena has a rudimentary vocabulary! Serena can’t place “that” in the officially exact place in a sentence! The committee is right. Serena often scolds herself for her poor communication skills and inability to lasso interesting words from her brain. As a schoolgirl, she took pride in never being tardy. She always turned in assignments the day before they were due, which annoyed one of her teachers. Serena, why can’t you wait a day, and turn your essay in tomorrow with the rest of the class? Serena believed (and still believes) once she was (is) given a job, or a task, or an assignment she had (and has) to do it immediately. She did not (does not) like to wait. Serena’s grades were average. She studied, read, and memorized. But she couldn’t keep what she learned in her head once a test was over or after she finished reading a book. She imagines the top of her head can be opened with a forest green colored key. When she needs to add more knowledge she unlocks her head, and pours it in, as if the smart stuff is ingredients for a recipe. Then she locks it, retaining everything. Serena thinks her mind should have been fed more than it was, and more than it is. Serena is hungry. I have an idea! Serena exclaims, and then gets to work. She chops garlic and tomatoes and basil and sautés all in a cast iron pan. She adds protein to the fragrant bouquet: shredded pages of her dictionary up to, and including the letter “R.” She’ll save the rest for another day. Serena sets a lovely table, with intelligent peonies from her garden. Here’s to the smartest meal I’ve every eaten! she says raising a glass of Qupé Syrah. Her hand vibrates crystal. Is someone clicking glasses with her?
Serena is afraid what she might find. Serena has to take the risk. She asks her neighbor for the required paperwork. Serena immediately completes it and gives it back to her neighbor. A week later, her neighbor tells Serena, you’ve been approved 50%. You can go, yet not alone. Serena knows she must have done something wrong in one of her past lives that she has to resolve before she will be granted 100% security clearance. Serena follows her neighbor into a small grey building, down a long hall, and then into a blue chilly room. You have to wear these, her neighbor says, handing Serena a pair of industrial hand protectors. Serena doesn’t consider the bulky things real gloves. She once had a drawer of mid and full-length gloves. She wore them with brightly colored dresses and fishnet stockings and she danced until she was sweaty and then she sat on a stool and picked up a tall icy glass of Tom Collins, still with the gloves on! She can’t do anything elegant with the ugly things meant to temper the wires from her brain. Once I open your head, and you take the wires out, you have to put a hat on your head, her neighbor says. Serena shakes her head, no, no, no! She hates hats, umbrellas, and raincoats with hoods. The one time she wore a hat, her head got so hot, her ears caught on fire. If you don’t cover your head, you will take your brain in your own hands, the neighbor says. Serena takes the risk. She reaches inside her head and pulls out a batch of wildly colored wires. This is what a headache looks like, she thinks.
Her neighbor hands Serena a pair of tweezers, and tells Serena, you better sit down. Serena leans in to read the words stamped on a magenta (her favorite color!) wire. Envy. Serena screams, why is this in my head? Envy is the heart beat of you, her neighbor says. How do you know? Serena asks. Everyone knows this about you. The thing Serena hates the most about herself is her raging envy. It’s ruined most of the friendships she’s had in other lives. I don’t want to feel envious. I’m going to bury this wire right now! Serena yells, and starts rushing toward the door, with the top of her head still off, and the rest of the wires on a table. Her neighbor gently guides her back and tells Serena she has to keep unraveling her wires. Serena obeys. Underneath magenta, Serena finds a multi-colored tightly wound bunch of wires marked “Other People’s Lives.” She begins to unwind the wires and then there is a pop! In the middle of the room appears a long elegantly clothed table, gorgeous flowers in the center, and stunning plates, and shiny silverware, and crisp napkins and clever wine and water glasses arranged neatly. Around the nurturing table sits a laughing loving caring family. No one is left out. That’s what I’ve always wanted, Serena says. You know, even in families that appear happy, there is trouble. Serena’s neighbor says.
Can I tell you a story, Serena asks her neighbor? Go ahead Serena, her neighbor says, sighing, because Serena always has a story. Serena begins, Once, I was in a quilting club and there were four members, all of us women, and we meet twice a month in a clubhouse we rented with our monthly dues. After a year of meetings, we were ready to attend the annual quilting convention, held in the next town over. The leader of our group drove us to the conference in her van. The afternoon we arrived, we checked in, and settled into our assigned rooms, with our assigned roommates, mine was the leader, which was nice because we had been in the knitting club in high school. The next day, we networked, and traded squares with other groups. In the evening we dined out at a lively place, and everyone talked about how we got into quilting. Later that night, I couldn’t sleep, so I went to the hotel bar, and ordered a glass of Claret. A quilting man at the bar started a conversation with me. He bought me another drink. We talked and laughed and for a moment, I thought, this is happy, I’m happy, I can be happy! Later I thought about the old song, “It Was The Whiskey Talkin,’ Not Me,” (even though I never drank whiskey). That night at the bar I felt a feeling unlike any feeling I’ve ever felt, and now I think I may never again feel that feeling, which I can only describe as a strong feeling. Some may call it desire. The man loved to quilt and he loved Elvis Costello, my favorite singer. How could it get any better? Yes, I did do what you think I did. I went to the man’s room and he showed me his quilt, and played Elvis Costello’s album Blood and Chocolate. I kissed the quilting man, and I don’t need to say more. The night turned into morning. My roommate, the leader, was drying her hair when I returned to our hotel room. She took one look at me still dressed in the green dress I wore the night before, and she turned off the hair dryer, rolled lip gloss over her lips, grabbed her purse, and left without saying anything to me. When I entered the restaurant, the group was already eating. I heard the leader ask, do you know what Serena did? The members leaned in, and in unison, asked, what? The leader whispered, but I heard her. She said, Serena is a slut. She cannot sit at our table, and she cannot ride in my van. The other members always did what the leader said. I took a bus home. I wasn’t allowed to attend any more conferences. I had to stay home and guard the clubhouse, and answer the phone calls from people interested in joining our club. I wasn’t allowed to admit anyone without the leader’s permission. A month later, I was shocked to see the leader in a restaurant, kissing a man not her husband. I thought she was perfect. I thought she was happy. The next day the leader called, and invited me back into the group, with one caveat: I was never to tell anyone what I had seen. But, I did tell someone. I’m telling you now.
Serena’s neighbor taps her on the shoulder, and says, everyone suffers, you aren’t the only one. Serena knows that. Still she’s always wanted to be included in something that doesn’t hurt.
Suddenly Serena’s head is cold. Serena is never cold. Don’t forget these, her neighbor says. Serena picks up three frayed metal wires, the color long worn off. The sharp trio reminds of her of Hopeless Park, a dreary place at the edge of a dead end street where Serena once lived. Serena begins to furiously cough. She is afraid. Dear Serena, you have to read the markings on the last wires, her neighbor says. Serena uses a magnifying glass to read the tiny words. Wire 1: Baby/Child. Wire 2: Teenager. Wire 3: Adult. What does this mean? Serena asks. Her neighbor says, you have to figure it out for yourself. I will be in the next room, working with another person. Take your time. For once in your life, Serena, slow down and think. Examine everything. Then you, and only you, can rewire your wires.
Serena sits silently in the room. How much time passes? The sun goes down. The sun rises. The sun goes down. The sun rises. The sun goes down. The sun rises, and so does Serena. First, she melts some of the wires in a beaker and pours the hot liquid into a pan she finds in one of the cupboards. While the mixture cools, she picks up the wire labeled Baby/ Child, and remembers when she was a curious baby climbing up a telephone pole, grasping the wires wound around the pole, she almost reached the top, but a big hand grabbed her, and baby Serena bawled. The hand thought Serena needed rescuing. Oh no, you were wrong, hand. You were the reason she cried. Serena was safe gripping the wires. They were her roots. Serena gets back to work, winding Baby /Child with Teenager and Adult, into a circle, and wrapping a protective layer of electrician tape around the wires, and then she twists them into a figure eight, and then winds them again, and finally she swaddles the wound of wires in a soft non-flammable material. The wires she melted have long since cooled. She turns over the pan, and gently taps it, and out spills a ten-letter word. Serena doesn’t know what to do with the word she’s heard before, a word she rarely uses, a word she once thought meant loss of control. And Serena wants to be in control. Right now her brain is not the transmitter of actions to other parts of her body. Serena’s hands are moving without instructions from her brain. Her hands are now informing her head. This is what you will practice. Serena’s hands wind “acceptance” around all her wires. This is your credo. Who is talking? Serena asks, and worries, oh no, did I mess up the wires, am I now hearing voices? Serena realizes that her bundle of wires just spoke to her. Serena put us back in your head, they say. She obeys and carefully sets her wires back into her brain, and puts back on her head, her only hat, and walks out of the cool room, and waits in a chair outside another door. She wants to tell her neighbor, I am ready to accept who I am. Serena doesn’t hear any sound coming from the other room. She closes her eyes, and when she opens them she is sitting in a chair in her kitchen. Serena has a headache around her temples. She drinks three glasses of water from an invisible glass, and then she sleeps for one whole day. For the first time in any life she’s ever lived, she doesn’t dream.
Wall of Protection
A week after examining her brain, Serena thinks back to the homes and lives she’s shared with others. She recalled her thirty-seventh year of her third life, when she started a really big project and she told her others, please don’t bother me. I have to get this important work done. She moved to a lopsided home, down a tortured road. Visitors could only reach her by a telepathic tractor. Serena knew one person who owned and knew how to operate that particular brand of tractor. Serena constructed a brick fence to protect her body and mind from that one person. No one would EVER break through her wall. She lived in her head and her world. She refused to put pictures on any walls. The blank walls helped her think. Her others had busy full family lives. Occasionally they asked Serena to join in their happy times. Sometimes she did, but most of the time, she declined, and said, I have to focus on the project. In the heat and hurt of the project Serena spent too much money on things that comforted her. She drove her tractor to yoga classes two times a day. The classes were held at two different studios, of course. Serena didn’t want anyone to notice how obsessive she was about her practice. She ate tuna melts along with a mound of fries and her stomach swelled up as if she’d swallowed, without chewing, a bag of raw potatoes. She would drink wine by herself but not too much, her body had a stopping point, and she didn’t take it past that point. It was the same with coffee. She could only drink so much and then her body refused another drop. Serena watched sad tragic movies with all the lights off. She wouldn’t allow herself to cry. Others had lived more difficult lives than she had lived. Some said, Serena, you are too tough on yourself and she disagreed. She thought she could, and should, be much tougher on herself. Fifteen years after she finished the project, it was time to enter another life. Before she left, she asked her others to help her dismantle the border separating her from them, but they were rightly busy. Now she wants to rebuild her life with others. Is it too late?
We all want
Serna is happy. For people who have what they want. In the afterlife, the people who want to be in a relationship are in a relationship and the people who want babies have babies. When she was living, Serena could never understand why these two large groups weren’t permitted (who was making this decision?) to have what they desired. Serena recalls Jefferson Airplane’s urgent lyrics:
Don’t you want somebody to love? Don’t you need somebody to love? Don’t you want to find somebody to love? You better find somebody to love.
Serena used to sing along though she knew love wasn’t always about love, and she didn’t believe someone like her deserved to be loved. Once she imagined sacrificing any future love so her beloveds could have healthy passionate romances. Someone to love her pals as much as she does. Serena never could be a mother and didn’t want to be a mother and once she thought, there are too many babies being born, and I won’t be another woman to bring another child into the world. She knows she’s getting into dangerous territory talking and thinking this way. Serena was pro-choice in her last life, and in her fourth life. Pro-choice includes supporting the decision to have a child. She’s adored other people’s children once she’s gotten to know them, and the children have stopped crying. In the afterlife, babies are evenly distributed between all of the women who truly desire them. No woman is denied a baby. There isn’t a law or a mandate or a big rule. It happens naturally. Women who don’t want a baby won’t have a baby. Babies love their mothers. Mothers love their babies. Fathers love and care and help and do no harm. People are rightly matched with rightly matched people. Decent honorable love triumphs in every home, even in Serena’s. Guess who shows up in Serena’s backyard in the afterlife? Maggie! Serena’s beloved cow from another lifetime. She is alive!
Finally, Serena has something to say and she doesn’t want to talk too much, or too loud.
She wants to tell the story that she has tried to tell before, but she’s been unable to tell the whole story without fear of interruption, or fear of violence, or fear of you.
(You know who you are).
Now that she has a rewired brain she hasn’t forgotten where she came from and who she once was. She’s ready to give a speech. Serena builds a small stage and a podium in her backyard. A little table on the stage is for a glass of water and a vase of white peonies from her garden. She rents many chairs and places them lecture style, facing the stage, and arranges comfy light brown outdoor pillows on the ground. She’s hired caterers for the reception. They will drink red and white wine and champagne and seltzer and not so plain water with cucumber. They will eat little bites of salmon on toast; steamed asparagus with lemon; endive with blue cheese and pear; fresh berries; Cowl Girl Creamery cheese, and brownies with sea salt. Serena has thought of everything. She’s wearing a green dress and black shoes. She is not wearing a hat. Other people are wearing hats, and some look ridiculous, see the adult woman in a pom-pom hat? Serena starts to walk over to her to ask, why are you wearing a baby’s hat? Her neighbor pulls her back, and says, C’mon, Serena, move this story forward. Serena could continue describing the setting, the food, the drink, and the guests’ hat attire, but she needs to give the speech. The reason we are here today.
Serena is at the podium, and here is what she says:
I am Serena and I am in my fourth afterlife. I’ve been preoccupied with things that have long since happened. I’ve been stuck in a time that once existed and, I hope, never will again. I know some things I’ve done have hurt others, and I have dismissed their feelings. Selfishly, I’ve only considered my world and not the world of others.
Who do I apologize to? Everyone? I know saying, I’m sorry won’t change what I’ve done or what I’ve said. I never wanted a big brass band apology from those who’ve wronged me. I’ve only wanted to tell my story, and to be believed. Let me say a few more words, and then I will be done focusing on me and my problems.
I hope so, Serena’s neighbor whispers to a woman in a bunny hat.
My family’s tree grew in a swamp and its slimy branches reached back so far there weren’t yet numbers. No one kept track or remembered. I was born in the mud. I grew up in the mud. I will always be a mud kid. I’ve finally come to accept this, here in the afterlife. Thank you concerned committee of the afterlife for your honesty. I owe you my next life. Serena closes her eyes and bows to the audience. When she straightens up she is staring at her reflection in the bathroom mirror. Miraculously, the mirror has repaired its cracks. Then Serena goes to her living room and sits in her comfortable green chair and stares at a wall. She can’t move. She thinks about everything she’s learned in her first, second, third, and, so far, in her fourth life. She looks toward to the door that leads to the outside. Serena knows what she wants to do next.
House and home
Serena flings open her front door and stands on her porch. She notices her tractor is parked in the driveway, and has been given a shiny new coat of green paint. She starts up the engine, and backs out into the street, and then she picks up her neighbor, and they drive around town. It’s a hayride. Lots of laughing! Serena has never felt such a release and a relief. She’s never been this real. When she drops her neighbor back home, Serena’s neighbor says, we knew you were born in, and from, the mud. That’s why you are here in this very particular afterlife. You’ve worked on your character flaws, but you can’t change who you are and where you came from. We are all mud people. You will help all mud kids who enter our world. Here you will remain.
Congratulations! Welcome to your last life.
“Serena in the Afterlife” is an excerpt of the novella Serena’s Home, a portion of which was published in the journal Killing The Angel (fall 2013).
ContributorLori Lynn Turner
Lori Lynn Turner's short fiction was published in the online food journal The Inquisitive Eater. She is an associate director of the The New School Writing Program. She just completed a memoir, It's In the House.