Study in Perfect

I remember only one such sleep following my firstborn’s delivery by C-section. I was under the influence of morphine and a pure, thorough body-exhaustion.


Free from any flaw or defect in condition; faultless

I remember only one such sleep following my firstborn’s delivery by C-section. I was under the influence of morphine and a pure, thorough body-exhaustion. The first course was upward, a mix of things half-heard, only partially understood, and so wrapped in imaginative ribbon. The rattle of a blood cart became a tree with spoons in place of leaves. A nurse became a lifeguard with layers of zinc on her nose; her announcement over the intercom, the answer to all those dream-exams.

I say “upward” because so much sleep is depicted as falling. Mine was not so. The room, with all its detail, receded, and I rose with a slight toiling up up up into the sun, to the second course, a kind of plateau. This was new land: very flat, very white, a salt field or desert made of chalk. Patches of dream flew against the sun—a miniskirt, some costume jewelry—but they didn’t engross me. When I was hungry, I ate coconut. When thirsty, I drank the milk. This went on for hours, this perfect sleep.

I reached the end by backstroke, the mind carving shoulder blades and wings in the sand. I stroked and coasted, sculled and skidded. Soon, I began to wake, down into the township, the atrium, the bed, then lower into a squalling sound. I found the baby’s face in mine: Oh, there you are.


Having all the required or desirable elements, qualities or characteristics; as good as it is possible to be.

Who named it perfect? Who made the declaration? Was it a swallow, nest mud-plastered to a piece of solid timber? Dried herbs sprouting a cottony mold? Rain that slides in sheets down the red tin roof? Wasps that appreciate ventilation but would never tell you so? Folding chairs in need of a stiff dusting and some paint? The straw, the long-dead horse and its hocked saddle? Whatever will take the place of rakes, dangerously rusting in a webby corner?

Soon, I’ll move my chair or run inside for oranges, and then humidity will lay a green slime across the siding. The barn will not resist. In this, the barn is no better than fence, or catalpa, or fields of medium- brown wheat.

But for now, the barn has perfect siding, the color of coffee grounds, flecked with salt and a long, gray wind stroking. The door doesn’t fit, and I love it so, love the shoulder-lift I must perform in freeing it from its lock. I’m a little frightened of tetanus, but the bottom gap that brushes grass and hedge sets forth a minty smell. The tractor on blocks; the barn’s ambling house-shape with hexagonal doorframes. Above, parabolas of bird-hunger chasing mosquitoes. There’s an easy reason for the barn’s abandonment. I love holding that reason back.


Precisely accurate, exact

I pour a bit of grape juice, in my haste missing the glass. A puddle the shape of a kidney begins to form. Is there a chip in the spout? Did I bump the counter? Seconds pass. Bounty, with quilted layers, swoops in and obliterates that debate.

We know that kitchens get messy, that food preparation involves spills, splatters and constant cleanup. How could we let the coffee boil, the spaghetti water burp like white-hot lava? We put our faith in Bounty to correct the matter, for Bounty is the quicker-picker-upper, the snicker- pucker-lover, the shiver-mother’s-helper. Tough on big oops, cottony on small faces.

Other brands should be ashamed. Marcal is slow. Brawny can’t handle it. Generic pushes the goop around like a lazy housekeeper. Only Viva comes close, and close is not perfect.

Between you and me, I’ve been known to waste a whole roll on doggy poop. I want to keep my hands clean, so may I attack the mess with excess? Absorb the stress with Bounty-ness? Target says yes and, while supplies last, offers the towels in 12-packs at just $12.99.

I’ve tried it in white, patterned and Select-a-Size. Smaller sheets mean less waste. Bounty makes us think: no blind- side, drive-by, hardly-turn-a-degree yanking. Two hands are required for the precise pull that will produce one mini- sheet of paper towel. So long, butter- smear, water-ring, 12 sticky dots of Coke fizz. Pat gently. Blot. Perfect.


When his wife died, he continued her work in the church. He joined the altar guild and prepared arrangements of peony, daisy and spirea. The cerecloth, fair linen, and coverlet were ironed and placed just so. Choir bells resting on their sides below the music stand resembled a toy train, and he was surprised when they were lifted into melodious service. His favorite season was Lent—for the color purple and random bare twigs. He gave up smoking, for a week.

If only he could know her intimate habits and feelings. Then the space she left behind would not seem so stark.

He flew to Kenya on a mission to build a schoolhouse, and though his labor was welcome, he grew to loathe his traveling companions for their poorly concealed self-righteousness. They were aware of his loss, of course, and he tried hard to appreciate their saccharine sympathy.

Once, his wife described hearing a barred owl for the first time, then catching its flight across the ravine. Something in the experience caused her to forget who she was and where she stood. Not at the center of things, but adjacent, a sideways figure created to protect this tiny fragment of perfection. It happened to her more than once, this abrupt shift of self-focus: standing in a stream while minnows swarmed around her ankles, listening to the crisp flap of pillowcases on a clothesline.

In service, he challenged himself to focus on a single prayer with absolute attention, the “Our Father,” for one. He favored the balance of “on earth as in heaven” and “forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us,” but his mind would inevitably wander in the few seconds it took to close the prayer. By “Amen,” he was off, cutting the grass and wondering which fertilizer would save the scrawny white pine by his front door.

His wife had believed Jesus was without sin, faultless in birth, life and death. But didn’t he doubt his father? And isn’t that where doubt began, in the mouth of a deity disguised as a Jewish man stretched to his physical and mental limit?

He had to admit he was a slow learner, too slow.

He remembered waiting in bed for his wife to finish washing. She was quick and businesslike, folding the washcloth into three, shaking water off the soap before replacing it in the dish. She lay down on her left side and waited for her husband to fold around her, patting his hand lightly till he fell asleep, though something was always askew in his dreams. When he woke and wandered into the living room, she lay snoring softly on the couch.

He imagined her figure open to the elements, birds plucking bits of cotton, skin, hair, carrying them off to line their nests. Rain drawing her blood into the soil; tissue, tendon and muscle battered with air. Finally: bone, returned to its chemical components and scattered like microscopic hail. Perhaps a body is perfect not when it is complete, but when there is no longer anything to take away.


Having both stamens and carpels present and functional

I saw a photograph of the pregnant man. He (she) had undergone testosterone treatments, shaved off his long black hair, grown a sketchy mustache and beard, but left his (her) uterus intact. He and his female partner appeared on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” and in the pages of People magazine. Their child was due in a few months. The couple would not be feeding the baby in the natural way; the photo clearly revealed a pair of lateral sickle-moon scars where his breasts had been surgically removed. Transgender groups everywhere were not pleased, said the public was not prepared for so radical a sight. There would be a casting of stones, and who knew what else.

A perfect flower in botanical terms is bisexual, a hermaphrodite. The female sexual parts include eggs, ovary and style. Most resemble a suction bulb, with large swelling at the base, a stalk and a froth of pollen-hungry styles at the tip. The male parts look like tiny reflex hammers and consist of anther (tip) and filament (stalk). A lily in the wild is an ideal, a beautifully structured thing, even more so when viewed under a magnifying glass.

The man is to flower as “gossip” is to “teach.”


Highly suitable for someone or something; exactly right

Fish the spotted mug—the one from Italy, favored for its height, white crackle glaze and slender lip—from the dishwasher. Its footprint is small; mouth, wide. No need to pinch the handle or fling out a naughty pinky; all four fingers fit.

Honey squeezed from the bear before milk, water, even tea. Then two inches of milk, usually skim, though whole milk is hardly a crime on Sunday. Cold water up to the rim and a scuffle for the right tea in a drawer with too many herbal numbers. Twinings Irish Breakfast. In Ireland, “tea” simply, enjoyed throughout the day and evening.

Where tea is concerned, the microwave is fine. Two minutes and 45 seconds on high, and the perfect mottled scrim rises to the top, the bag floating in a paisley of light milk-chocolate brown. No puffing, gasping cappuccino-din. No inch-high foam, all empty promise and mustache- making. This cup is for immediate, wholesome, essential tea-drinking. The buzz begins within four or five sips. Lucky day! The New York Times looks fascinating, the font not so tiny after all.

Monday morning: two bags.


A toddler’s pink-and-white striped dress, with gauzy apron and purple ribbon tiebacks. Hand-me-down from her cousin, already well-worn, nevertheless worn everyday whether or not her mother would allow it. The dress had a name—Pollo, like “Paulo,” a close derivative of “pillow,” for she slept inside the dress, not needing a pillow. On the yoke, two oval strawberry stains and one long drip of indeterminate origin. Apron, semidetached in places where she’d stepped on it while attempting to rise from a sitting position.

It was a slip of mother, like her mother’s slip, a second skin without the hurting patches. She lifted the dress over her face, and her stomach calmed. She lowered it and knew what to do next. Could you wear a pillow, a glowworm, a blanket? The dress was her forest place without the scary journey.

She listened to the dress and, in time, refused to wear anything else. In her parents’ world, this was impossible. What would people think—that she was poor, unbeloved? They cajoled, distracted her with party shoes, firmly enforced time- outs when the battle grew intense, and still the child would not take off the dress.

What is the perfect solution but a pair of disappointments, two less-than-perfects, a middle-making. Not throwing the dress away, not wearing it forever. What, said her father, if Pollo were a pet, like parakeet or fish? Would you crush it in your sleep? Wouldn’t you want to pat, preserve and keep it happy?

She could have her dress but only if she carried it in a brown paper bag. And so she did for five years, and then some.


“Serendipity”: tasty to look at, a bright experiment for the mouth. Leading off, the meditative hum, “seren,” like a flat horizon. Then the playful up and down of the last three syllables, as if our boat has encountered chop or the horse we’re riding has begun to canter. We cannot keep from giggling. Life is bumpy and ends with a laugh.

For solitude, I drove down to Harrod’s Creek and met the man I would marry. Isaac Newton was not beaned by a falling apple, but it’s a more perfect truth, the one we love and remember. A moon called Charon emerged from a “defect” in a photograph. Alexander Fleming failed to disinfect his bacteria cultures before departing for vacation, only to find them “contaminated” with Penicillium when he returned.

Thoreau said, “There is a certain perfection in accident which we never consciously attain.”

There is also a certain accident in perfection which favors the prepared mind.


That which has attained its purpose.

“I love you.”
“I love you, too.”


I threw her book into the back seat, meaning I’d read it right away. Too easily forgotten in my bag, not enough room in the front seat. The author was my younger sister, a naturalist, who wrote eloquently about the liminal zones stitched between shore and sea, mountain and field.

But the book remained behind my field of vision, out of mind, neglected for weeks as I drove back and forth between my home and work, work and home. And the ferocious sun glared. At times, the temperature in the car hit 105 degrees.

When my sister was 10, she took piano lessons. I teased her cruelly, breezing by while she practiced, criticizing her touch, her beginner’s effort at expression.

Some books were bound in human skin, a practice known as “anthropodermic bibliopegy.” Allegedly, grimoires (books of magic) were bound this way. My sister’s book was an elegant trade paperback, perfect bound, the sections (or signatures) face-trimmed on three sides and rough- -cut on the fourth to absorb better the thermally heated glue.

She was always a gifted conversationalist. Her vocabulary at 15 exceeded mine at 30.

National Geographic is perhaps the best example of a perfect bound magazine. My sister worked there for six years and now flies around the world on enviable assignments. Snow monkeys in Japan. Urban gardens in Paris. “Talking” chimpanzees in California.

In the 1996 film “The Pillow Book,” a writer’s body is exhumed, and his skin carefully tanned, written upon and bound into a book.

I love my sister’s hair: thick, dark blonde, rising off her forehead into a wispy French braid.

My sister’s book worked its way to the bottom of my car and slipped under the seat, where friends and family kicked and trampled it unknowingly. Later that summer, while vacuuming the floor mats, I unearthed it. The cover was pocked and yellow, curled into a cardboard wave. When I opened it, pages sprang out and fluttered into the street.


Absolute, complete

Sarah has been missing her mother this week. (This week has not yet finished.) She’s been missing her mother since the day she died—July 30, 1980. (Note that, except for the mother’s death-day, specific times are not mentioned.) Sarah has just honored her mother’s birthday—March 7—with candles and a few words of description to her own children. (The present perfect is often used when the time is recent.) They never met their grandmother. Sarah has dreamt of her mother for 28 years. Since 1980, these dreams have been the same: Her mother appears in a garden and watches her with mild indifference. (The present perfect is often used with for and since.)

In January 1980, her mother received a diagnosis of cervical cancer, which is 90 percent curable. For this reason, Sarah had not taken the diagnosis seriously. (The past perfect makes it clear that the event happened previously.) True, she’d had some inkling of her mother’s frailty. Her instincts were generally right, but her denial was stronger. Later, when she read her mother’s tiny, black loose-leaf notebook, Sarah learned her mother had been struggling with depression, too. This was before everyone took Lexapro, Zoloft, Paxil, etc.

Sarah’s mother made a show of fairness. She could do it by eye—dividing, dividing, among her five daughters. Sarah received a slice of the genetic cake, six Shaker chairs and a harpsichord. One slice of the genetic cake is just enough to make a person crave the whole. In this way, it fulfills the Japanese definition of perfect: Nothing lasts, nothing is finished and nothing is perfect.

By the time Sarah’s children are born, she will have donated the chairs to Goodwill. (The future perfect describes an action that will occur in the future before some other action.) They were seriously uncomfortable, especially for anyone with a bad back. The harpsichord will have been repaired. It’s hopelessly out of tune, and 12 hammers are dented.

In an hour, Sarah will have finished most of her errands. (Time-orienting words can be good indicators of the need for a perfect-tense verb.) Alas, the kitchen won’t have been cleaned when the guests arrive.


A tricolored flag from west harbor to east dock. Near stripe of amber, middle aquamarine, finally black with touches of evergreen. So clear, so spotless this early in the season, too cold for human swimming. Presumably fished out though every day a man wades out to seduce a small-mouth bass.

A dinghy named Pesto zigzags through the water. Zig. Zag. The rower can’t see behind, where she is going. She steers toward Anderson’s buoy, avoids the deep, but not so shallow that stones gouge the boat. Her oars give warning—clank, scrape, jerk instead of the smooth glide forward. She marks her progress against the shore, past boat docks, sagging green cabins and the ancient Trollhaugen guesthouse.

She’s not even a little wet, but feels as if she’s taking a giant bath of peridots, a gem-water rinse from scalp to toe. Her boat leaves a meandering wake of darker emerald trimmed with foam. The oars send off tiny whirlpools on both sides. Sometimes, she stops to watch their retreat, how they chase each other, then flatten, barely five feet out, and blend into the current. The sound is hushed and delicious, and makes her mouth water. It’s tempting to take a drink, so she lowers her hand, holds it under until her fingers go numb.

Next year, she’ll arrive later in the summer when the water’s temperate, better for swimming, but laced with bits of algae that slither across her ankles.

So it goes with perfect: Its anchor drifts, catches again in time, some other immaculate place.


Makes you want to begin, again.

About the Author

Sarah Gorham

Sarah Gorham’s essays have appeared in Iowa Review, Agni, Quarterly West, Real Simple, and Poets & Writers, among other places. She is the author of four collections of poetry: “Bad Daughter” (Four Way Books, 2011); “The Cure” (Four Way Books 2003); “The Tension Zone” (Four Way Books, 1996 and, second edition, 1998); and “Don’t Go Back to Sleep” (Galileo Press, 1989).

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